Everyone knows we need to reduce gun violence in America. Everyone knows we need to boost the economy, too. Usually these goals are debated in different policy silos. But 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.
Here's the case for it. Critics of fresh gun-safety measures argue that laws pushed at moments like this won't make a dent in gun violence. Banning assault weapons, limiting magazine capacity or closing background-check loopholes, we're told, do nothing about the estimated 250 million guns already in private hands.
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 that awful night.
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.
Last Saturday, in Oakland and San Francisco, nearly 600 handguns and rifles were collected at $200 each, no questions asked. They'll be melted down and turned into stop signs, light posts and park benches. The program was funded, the Oakland Tribune reported, by nonprofit groups and a private donor.
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 departments in Washington, New York, Detroit, Boston, Baltimore and elsewhere have organized buybacks, often partnering with churches in communities devastated by gun violence.
Each of these buybacks 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 horrific mass killing of 35 people at a resort in Tasmania, Australian politicians came together around the “National Firearms Agreement,” which banned semi-automatic and automatic rifles and shotguns and created a compulsory buyback program for the outlawed weapons. (To do otherwise would have amounted to a taking of property without compensation.)
The number of homicides involving firearms has dropped 59 percent in Australia since then, and the number of 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 of firearms. That would be like destroying 50 million guns in America today.
The Australian “outlaw and repurchase” option is one approach. 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; we do it every day with Medicare drug benefits and defense contractors, to name just two.
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 fast.
Presto! 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 — part of a national rethinking of our gun culture in the wake of Newtown.
Besides, 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 (especially to make sure that the government doesn't buy back nonworking guns or other cast-offs, and offers higher sums for more valuable weapons). But we need to think fast about policies equal to the scale of the problem.