2020 Democratic White House hopefuls were quick to call for new gun laws this week in the aftermath of back-to-back shootings in Ohio and Texas over the weekend that left 31 dead.
Several candidates, including current front-runner Joe Biden, have called for Australian-style gun buyback programs where owners of firearms would sell back their weapons to the government at government-determined prices.
While Biden has endorsed the policy as an optional measure, former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke, who is from El Paso, where 22 people were killed in Saturday’s shooting, has endorsed a mandatory one, where owners of weapons deemed illegal under federal law would be required to sell their guns to the government. Both candidates have also called for bans on “assault weapons” with loose definitions of the term, which would require owners of such firearms to sell their guns to federal officials under O’Rourke’s proposal.
Biden announced his support for the policy during a primetime interview with CNN.
“I would institute a national buyback program,” Biden told the network’s Anderson Cooper Monday night, noting that his program would be optional.
O’Rourke touted the policy on a Monday episode of the “Pod Save America” podcast with Jon Favreau.
“I’m open to them right now as a candidate – absolutely has to be part of the conversation,” O’Rourke told Favreau. “At the end of the day, if it’s going to save lives, if it’s going to prevent the kind of tragedies that we saw in El Paso, or Gilroy, or Dayton, or this weekend in Chicago, or all over this country on a daily basis, then let’s move forward and do it.”
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, another 2020 candidate, joined Biden and O’Rourke in calling for a federal gun buyback program. Bullock told Real Clear News Tuesday that he wants to end the sales of AR-15s in addition to implementing a gun buyback program. Similar to Biden, Bullock wants the program to be optional.
“I think that there should be voluntary buy-back,” Bullock said. “But not a mandatory one.”
A mandatory buyback program such as the one endorsed by O’Rourke is likely to face an uphill legal challenge in the courts under the 2008 Supreme Court decision District of Columbia v. Heller. In the 5-4 ruling, conservative Justice Antonin Scalia wrote that the Second Amendment protected citizens’ rights to possess weapons in “common use.”
Whether the nation’s highest court will approve of whatever Democrats ultimately decide to try to ban remains to be seen, but lower courts have borrowed language from the Heller decision to protect “assault rifles,” citing the fact that guns such as AR-15s are some of the most popular weapons sold across the country, used commonly for hunting and target practice. An expired 1994 federal “assault rifles” ban in fact only banned cosmetic features of common rifles, since automatic weapons are already illegal for civilians to own inside the United States.
As Bre Payton noted last year: “‘Assault weapon’ and ‘assault rifles’ are malleable terms often used in public discourse to scare people. After all, all guns are designed to ‘assault’ something. The usual proper use of this term is to describe fully automatic machine-gun-style weapons, which in the United States have been banned from civilian use for years.”
Australia confiscated approximately 650,000 guns in its mandatory gun buyback program in the 1990s, following a mass shooting that killed 35 people in Tasmania. Touted as a gun control success story and a model to follow by advocates of stricter gun laws, some studies show the program had no significant impact on reducing homicides in the country.