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Editorial columns


Think big to craft fruitful gun buyback

Everyone knows we need to reduce gun violence in America. Everyone knows we need to boost the economy, too. What if there was a way to boost the economy and shrink gun violence? Allow me to propose a massive, debt-financed gun buyback program.

Critics of fresh gun-safety measures argue that laws pushed at moments like this won’t make a dent in gun violence. The gun lobby is surely wrong to suggest that those measures won’t save some lives. If Aurora, Colo. shooter James Holmes hadn’t had an assault rifle and high-capacity clips, far fewer people than 70 would have been killed or injured.

But the gun lobby is right about the existing stock of weapons. The 12,000 Americans murdered with guns every year are killed with guns already out there.

The right response isn’t to shrug and say we’re powerless. We need to think bigger.

This past Mother’s Day, a buyback program in Los Angeles brought in 1,650 guns, each in exchange for a prepaid Visa or grocery-store card of up to $200, depending on the gun. Police in Washington, New York, Detroit, Boston, Baltimore and elsewhere have organized buybacks, often partnering with churches in communities devastated by violence.

Each buyback has been small. But the only limit to their scale is our imagination. Australia’s experience shows what it looks like when you aim high.

In 1996, not two weeks after a mass killing of 35 people, Australian politicians came together around the “National Firearms Agreement,” which banned semi-automatic and automatic rifles and shotguns and created a compulsory buyback for the outlawed weapons. (To do otherwise would have amounted to taking property without compensation.)

Homicides involving firearms have dropped 59 percent in Australia, and suicides by firearm fell by 74 percent, according to the Journal of Law and Economics. The percentage of homes with guns has dropped in half. A Harvard study found that, while Australia experienced 13 gun massacres in the 18 years before 1996, there has been none since.

The government purchased and destroyed 700,000 weapons between 1996 and 1998 – about one-fifth of Australia’s estimated stock. That would be like destroying 50 million guns in America today.

But if Congress balks at banning certain weapons entirely, it could make gun owners an offer they can’t refuse. Instead of $200 a gun, Uncle Sam might offer $500. After all, overpaying powerful constituencies to achieve public policy goals is a time-honored American tradition.

So imagine a $100 billion, one-time program aimed at buying back 200 million firearms at $500 a pop. We issue the payments in prepaid credit cards that expire in three months to be sure the money is spent quickly.

So long as the federal money is borrowed, we get an immediate boost to demand, jobs and growth. And with long-term interest rates at all-time lows, there’s never been a better time for the feds to overpay gun owners and get these weapons out of circulation. The president can even pitch selling a gun to Uncle Sam as a patriotic act. By structuring the buyback so that half is administered via refundable tax credits, Republicans could take credit for a major tax cut, to boot.

The White House and Congress can tweak the details. But we need to think fast about policies equal to the scale of the problem.

Matt Miller is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and co-host of public radio’s “Left, Right & Center.” He wrote this for the Washington Post.