Wednesday, December 19, 2012

More on the Australia Semiautomatic Rifle Buyback

I spent a chunk of yesterday reading what is perhaps the most exciting document ever: an audit of the Australian gun buyback (PDF).

To recap, the government of Australia banned the manufacture and possession of semiautomatic long guns (rifles and shotguns) and high capacity magazines in 1996. They then spent about $500 million buying back existing guns, compensating gun dealers and for loss of business, etc. In total, roughly 650,000 guns were reclaimed and destroyed. Australia has lower overall gun ownership rates, and a higher share of those guns fell into this category; the buyback reduced the estimated number of guns in the country from 3.2 million (about 10 per 100 residents) to 2.6 million (about 6.5 per 100 residents). Australia hasn't had a mass shooting since. While suicides and homicides were declining anyway, suicides and homicides involving guns declined slightly faster, though studies differ on whether or not these declines can be attributed to the buyback.

Australia's "compulsory" gun buyback did not end with the
government raiding rural shooting ranges and dropping off
checks as compensation
Importantly, while the buyback was "compulsory", the Australian equivalent of the ATF did not raid compounds in the outback and attempt to pry guns from citizens' cold, dead hands. This despite the fact that the Australian government is pretty sure that many semiautomatic long guns remain in civilian hands. When the buyback ended, efforts to reclaim weapons simply stopped. If you held on to yours, and the government finds you with it, you'll be arrested and prosecuted, but if you live in the middle of nowhere (and Australia may be the one country that has more middle of nowhere than America) and squeeze off thirty rounds from an AR-15, you might get away with it. What's more, States have been permitted to operate amnesty programs where citizens can voluntarily surrender weapons without risk of criminal prosecution. Satisfaction with the buyback program among gun owners was very high (66% say they were very or mostly satisfied with their compensation). Gun dealers, shooting range operators, and others who make a living in the gun industry were less pleased, but a majority still said they were satisfied with the government's compensation. In addition, the government ended up buying back some weapons that were already illegal even though it's not clear that the 1996 law allowed them to do so (fully automatic weapons, airplane cannons -- no, seriously, someone turned in 20 airplane cannons).

The practical effect of such a buyback in the united states would be much more muted. The best estimates suggest there are between 2.5 and 4 million semiautomatic long guns in the US. That's roughly 1% of the total gun inventory, rather than the 30% that such guns made up in Australia. Still, semiautomatic guns are used in a number of spree shootings, and high capacity magazines are almost always used. Buying back those magazines would almost certainly be worth it.


Neil Sinhababu said...

I am liking this Australian plan.

Nicholas Beaudrot said...

Yeah it now looks like the Australian buyback went further than anything you could realistically do in the US ... it heavily restricted all semiautomatic long guns. This is a much larger class of weapon, some of which have legitimate hunting functions (though a bolt-action rifle would suffice in many such circumstance). Such a ban/buyback would hit 20% of guns and be totally impractical in the US.

Neil Sinhababu said...

Suppose we tried it, and the people who didn't turn in their guns were kooky survivalists who just locked the guns up in their basements and knew that showing them off would result in trouble. That's a better situation overall, right? I'd think the number of high-rate-of-fire weapons likely to fall into a crazy person's hands would decline.

Nicholas Beaudrot said...

I mean that to try to buyback every semiautomatic rifle & shotgun (rather than "assault weapons" however you want to define it) would cost tens of billions of dollars and affect upwards of 10 million gun owners. Not really doable.