Do Republicans Have Any Real Reason to Worry About Gun Confiscation?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

This reader, Jamie R., suggests the answer is yes:

American proponents of stricter gun control are fond of citing Australia and the UK as examples to be aspired to. [CB note: see our previous note from an Australian reader sketching out the scene there.] President Obama himself has referenced it on several occasions. When asked about it at a campaign event, Hillary Clinton mentioned that Australian-style buyback schemes were “worth looking at.”

The phrase “No one wants to take your guns” might as well be the slogan of the American gun-control movement. They seem bewildered when gun-rights proponents suggest otherwise. The term “confiscation” is a dirty word, and they insist they only wish to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous criminals.

Yet that is exactly what happened in the Australia and the UK. The sorts of weapons that were banned in Australia make American “Assault Weapon Bans” look tame by comparison, extending all the way to pump-action and lever-action firearms. [Most of the UK] implemented a complete ban on handguns. The so-called “buybacks” were not voluntary; gun owners had no choice but to turn in their property.

If American gun-control proponents don’t want to be accused of wanting to confiscate guns, perhaps they should stop referring to the Australia and the UK as examples to be emulated.

An Australian living the in U.S. lends his perspective:

My father was a Lt Col in the Army and proud gun owner, and I share a lot of his outlook on life. I do not think that the Australian approach would work in the USA, at least not for a long time. It worked in Australia because of several things missing in the USA:

  1. A conservative and popular leader willing to take on the gun issue. Australian PM John Howard was an experienced conservative politician who ran to the right on several issues, but was willing to challenge gun ownership after the Port Arthur Massacre.
  2. One-party control gives power to take action. In the Westminster style of government, the leader of the country is the head of the largest voting bloc in the lower house. The upper house (Senate, in Australia) can limit the lower house, but is no where near as powerful as the U.S. Senate. The heads of departments also serve in the Parliament on the same side as the PM, which means that the agencies are directly answerable to the legislature. State governments are comparatively weak. Thus, the executive running the country also runs the legislature, and the administrative agency, and there are few “checks and balances.” In the USA, Obamas tears will not change the fact that the GOP controls the House, Senate and (effectively) the Supreme Court.
  3. One-party control gives more responsibility. While the ruling party has a lot of power and discretion, they are rewarded for good decisions and blamed for bad decisions. And the electorate WILL  hold them responsible. When there is mass shooting in USA, the Democrats blame the GOP about lack of gun control, and the GOP can blame Democratic gun control for the lack of a hero to stop the bad guys. In Australia, whoever is in power will be blamed for the mass shooting and for taking away people’s guns, and rewarded for the lack of gun deaths. The party in power has to decide whether any decision is makes will be rewarded or punished by the electorate, and the Australian PM picked correctly (he was reelected several times).
  4. Pragmatic approaches to policy.  The USA is fundamentally idealistic and optimistic and so will cite lofty ideas and the constitution as a reason to never get anything done. Australians are fundamentally pragmatic and pessimistic and, if they see a serious mass shooting, will change the law to stop it. So while both Americans and Australians are skeptical of government, the USA will use that as an good reason to do nothing about gun control, while Australians will use a massacre as evidence of government incompetence that needs to be fixed.
  5. Different expectations of government. Australians want the government to leave them alone in some areas, but be active in others, and are pretty open and pragmatic about accepting those things.  The government has a lot of power (see point 2) and the electorate are pretty clear that they will reward or punish the government on the decisions it makes (see point 3).  So, if there is a government program, it should be well run.  If the program is too intrusive and bureaucratic, it can be changed.  Thus, before the Port Arthur massacre in Australia, every gun was registered at the police station, and gun ownership required a license and some sort of screening.  It was reasonable and not intrusive. After the massacre, people accepted more regulation as a way to stop more killings.  In the USA, the agencies run more independently of the legislature and executive, and hence of the electorate.  For example, the U.S. military exists in the popular imagination as almost a stand alone entity (like the Catholic Church, or “the media”), and not a large program funded by and overseen by the government. There is an almost schizophrenic approach to government: the programs that you like just get accepted as part of the way things are (Social Security) while the things that don’t work (like the TSA) are blamed on “Washington.”   

I think what WOULD work in the USA is expansion of background checks. The vast majority of Americans support sensible background checks to stop criminals and the insane from buying a gun.  I think that they would accept universal background checks before any gun can be owned and transferred. The Democrats will support this on principle. The GOP can be corralled into supporting this as a way to keep guns out of the hands of terrorists and criminals, but only if there is trust that it will be done competently and fairly.  To do that, the Democrats need to demonstrate that government can run things competently and fairly.

An anti-gun reader, Michael Gomez, also believes gun confiscation is a pipe dream:

I strongly support gun control measures along the lines of those adopted in Australia—and I would happily go even further by restricting ammo along the lines of Israel. But sadly, I despair at the feasibility of adopting such measures here. I used to believe—long before Newtown—that the only way to enact serious gun control in America would be for the country to experience a massacre so revolting that the country would be jolted to its senses. In a conversation at a party as early as 1997, I actually suggested, to a German acquaintance, that “...some nut would have to shoot up and elementary school and kill dozens of little children.”

Well, it happened. And nothing changed. There are several reasons for this.

One is the Second Amendment—at once the most regrettable and repealable component of our Bill of Rights and possibly the greatest legal and constitutional example of the law of unintended consequences known to man! The Second amendment was never intended to allow concealed handguns or assault weapons (neither of which existed when it was drafted). It was intended to serve as a proxy for a standing army at a time when the nation was weak (with no professional standing army) and a still fractured (and highly RURAL) society.

Yet it does guarantee “the right to bear arms.” And short of repealing it as a historical anomaly that has outlived its intended purpose (which would be ideal), we are stuck with it in perpetuity and have to work around it, like some giant jagged mountain peak that can’t be avoided on a journey.

Another reason is our gun culture, which is so deeply ingrained in parts of American society. While some Americans (like myself) take enormous pride in never having touched a deadly firearm, others buy them as Christmas presents and take huge family photos brandishing guns! This will not end anytime soon.  What’s worse, the divisions are only aggravated by our declining wages and the gradual snuffing out of “The American Dream.” Demographic changes (resulting in the loss of white dominance) and security fears over terrorism (though grossly overblown) further exacerbate the problem.

In anxious times, a certain class of individuals will always take take comfort in owning firearms. Guns can feel so empowering! And yet, statistically speaking, the chance that anyone will successfully deploy a firearm in defending oneself against an assault is virtually non-existent! You are much more likely to die as the result of an accident or a suicide from YOUR OWN firearm. Still, no one imagines himself as a statistic. People take great comfort in owning a gun. It confers an illusion of power and control.

Finally, there is the NRA and the gun lobby, whose views are far more extreme than those of their rank and file members. While hiding behind the mantra of civil liberty, their only real interest is dollars. Billions of dollars. That’s how much they make each year trading in deadly weapons. Little wonder their proposed solution to gun violence is—wait for it—to have yet MORE Americans carry firearms! This perverse logic, if applied to modern dermatology, would seek to treat deadly melanoma by building yet more tanning salons.

So I applaud Obama’s efforts. But I don’t carry much hope. I would like America to be more like Australia (or even better, like Denmark or Norway). But we are a long way from being like those countries. Structural, cultural, legal, and economic barriers almost certainly mean that we won't get there anytime soon—if ever.

Email if you have a new angle to lend to the debate. Update from a reader who responds to the first one in this note:

“American proponents of stricter gun control are fond of citing Australia and the UK as examples to be aspired to.” True enough. However, the reader then went on to strongly imply that Obama and Clinton might attempt to enact the very same regulations in the U.S.  

This is false. Obama, a constitutional scholar who keeps up with the news, and Clinton, also legally trained and well-versed, know full well that under current Second Amendment jurisprudence, legislation mirroring the Australian gun control efforts would be struck down as unconstitutional before the ink was dry on the presidential signature. They may lament this fact, but they are well aware of it.  Unlike the NRA, which in recent years has taken the position that the phrase “well-regulated” was at some point redacted right out of the text (unbeknownst to the rest of us), Obama and Clinton acknowledge the constitutional right even if they don’t think it was intended to be limitless.

So no, no one is attempting to confiscate anyone’s legally purchased firearms. If there was no Second Amendment, would Obama or Clinton consider legislation, such as buybacks, to reduce the number of particularly lethal firearms in circulation? Maybe they would (though unlike Marco Rubio and Paul Ryan, I am not privy to their private beliefs on the subject). But in this country, with Second Amendment case law like Heller to work around, Obama and Clinton both know that nothing even remotely resembling “confiscation” is legislatively possible.  “He’s coming for your guns” is ugly scaremongering propaganda, nothing more.

Gun control supporters point to the Australian example less as a model to emulate, and more as a rebuttal to the ludicrous claim made by opponents—after every massacre or in response to every call for reform—that tighter laws won’t have any meaningful effect on gun violence because somehow bad guys will get guns anyway. The pre- and post-gun control evidence out of Australia shows that this is laughable nonsense.

And even if they were right, why have any laws at all? People will just ignore them, am I right? That’s one of the most specious arguments in circulation right now.

Like many others, I concluded that nothing meaningful will happen regarding guns any time soon after the extremely modest Manchin/Toomey bill failed to pass after Newtown. If the mass slaughter of children at school wasn't enough to shake up the status quo, what possibly would be?