The Madness of Gun Buybacks

Andrew Cuomo's policy is full of holes.

By Dave Kopel, of the Independence Institute

5/15/00 11:25 a.m., National Review Online. More by Kopel on "buybacks."

Housing Secretary Andrew Cuomo held a press conference last week to announce his success in paying Americans not to exercise their constitutional rights. Although Congress never appropriated money for the project, Cuomo has used federal tax dollars to conduct a "BuyBack America" program, which Cuomo says has claimed more than 10,000 guns in recent weeks.

The program isn't really a "buyback." Since Cuomo's Department of Housing and Urban Development didn't sell the guns in the first place, it can't buy them "back." Nor will the program contribute anything to public safety.

A criminal, for whom a gun is a tool of the trade, is unlikely to sell his tool for $50. Instead, the typical sellers in a "buyback" are the widows of hunters, other older people, or other non-dangerous types — rather than teenage gangsters who have suddenly decided to abandon a life of violence.

Because most people who surrender their guns are very unlikely to commit a violent gun crime, the public safety benefit of a buyback, if any, must lie in reducing the supply of guns which can be stolen, or in removing a potential suicide instrument. But the buyback doesn't even provide much in the way of disarmament: a study of a gun buybacks in Seattle reported that sixty-six percent of sellers had another gun that they did not surrender. Indeed, three percent of gun sellers said they would use the money to buy another gun, or would donate the proceeds to the National Rifle Association. [Charles M. Callahan, et al., Money for Guns: Evaluation of the Seattle Gun Buy-Back Program84 PUB. HEALTH REP. 474 (1994).]

Moreover, the guns sold at buybacks are often old or defective. This shouldn't be surprising; a rational person with a gun worth more than $50 would sell the gun at a gun store for a fair price, rather than giving it to the government for $50.

Unsurprisingly, the social science evidence shows that buybacks have absolutely no positive effect in reducing gun crime, gun accidents, or any other form of gun misuse. The research is detailed in Under Fire: gun Buybacks, Exchanges and Amnesty Programs, a book published by the D.C.-based Police Foundation (a think tank for big-city police chiefs).

The money wasted on the Cuomo buyback came from a Drug Elimination Grant Program. Although Congress gave HUD money for the battle against drugs (which are illegal), Cuomo used the money to get rid of guns, which are not only legal, but are specifically protected by the Second Amendment and by forty-four state constitutions.

Why is so much energy invested in buybacks by the anti-gun forces? One reason is that it's a path of relatively little resistance. Gunowners may fight against efforts to take their guns, but they are indifferent to the government buying guns from other people.

Second, buybacks can be initiated without legislative approval, as long as there's an executive branch official, like Cuomo, willing to spend tax money "creatively" or unlawfully.

More importantly, anti-gun activists really do believe that guns are inherently evil. The people who want the government to buy and destroy guns enjoy the same satisfaction that others have enjoyed at book burnings, or at the prohibitionists' rally where whiskey is poured into the river. From the destroyers' viewpoint, there's no need to wait for social science to find benefits from the destruction. The destruction of the wicked object is good in itself.

In a free country, destructionists have every right to their own opinions, including opinions that paying other people to stop exercising constitutional rights is a good idea. But it's hard to balance the motives of a politician who claims not to be against law-abiding citizens owning guns — and then takes satisfaction every time a citizen surrenders her firearms to the government to be melted into a slab of useless metal.

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