Los Angeles Times
Wednesday, May 3, 2000

Help Promote Fewer Guns--for the Feds


"Every gun turned in through a buyback program means potentially one less tragedy," President Bill Clinton declared at a Sept. 9, 1999, White House photo op with mayors and police chiefs. Clinton was announcing that the Department of Housing and Urban Development would be allocating $15 million to buy up to 300,000 guns from private citizens.

Unfortunately, such programs have serious flaws. For instance, gun buyback programs have made no attempt to round up the guns of one of the most aggressive groups in society: federal lawmen. However, after the Elian Gonzalez raid, it is clearly time to reduce the number of machine guns in the hands of the INS, the Border Patrol and other federal law enforcement agencies. In the now-famous photograph, a Border Patrol agent pointed an HK MP-5 toward a 6-year-old boy and his fisherman rescuer. The HK fires 800 rounds a minute. Most experts agree that, when carrying out a nighttime raid on a home with unarmed men, women and children, weapons firing only 700 rounds a minute are sufficient.

Since 1995, the Pentagon has deluged local law enforcement with thousands of machine guns, more than 100 armored personnel carriers, scores of grenade launchers and more than a million other pieces of military hardware. Instead of relying on street smarts, police departments are resorting to high-tech weaponry courtesy of Uncle Sam. There are some cases in which government agents need high-powered weaponry. But, too often, the possession of the weapons has induced G-men to use far more force and intimidation than is necessary.

How could a government gun buyback work? It is doubtful that Congress would be willing to directly appropriate funds for this task, since some members of Congress might fear that it would make their previous lavish appropriations for heavy armaments for law enforcement look foolish. Americans would have to rely on private donations to fund the buyback. After seeing "the photo," many American families would likely be willing to donate $5 or $10 to reduce the chance that lawmen would smash through their doors late at night. Large foundations have heavily bankrolled the gun control movement and perhaps they also would be willing to provide grants to aid this buyback program.

How much would a government gun buyback program cost? There are few reliable domestic price quotes. However, if foreign experience is a guide, the program could be much less expensive than one might expect. In the early 1990s, Soviet troops in East Berlin sold their fully automatic AK-47s for $50. In 1995, in Chechnya, Russian troops traded their automatic weapons for a few bottles of vodka. Of course, given that most American lawmen probably do not have a taste for vodka, such an exchange program might not work here. But, with private sector ingenuity, a solution could be found.

Many federal agents are tired of being denounced as "jack-booted thugs" and thus might be willing to participate in a buyback program. HUD-financed gun buyback programs have promised gun sellers immunity for the guns they cash in (unless the government traces the gun to a crime). We would have to extend a similar type of immunity to remorseful lawmen.

What would happen to the guns collected? Private citizens cannot own automatic weapons without a federal license, and it is unlikely that federal bureaucrats would cheerfully issue them. HUD has recommended that guns bought in buyback programs be crushed so that they do not reenter street traffic. Instead of destroying the weapons bought back from government agents, they could be gathered for a new museum to help Americans understand modern public service. There could be special exhibits to show the submachine gun that a U.S. marshal used to kill 14-year-old Sammy Weaver at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, the automatic rifles used by Albuquerque police in 1996 to gun down 69-year-old Ralph Garrison as he stood on his porch with a cell phone dialing 911 during a Customs Service raid, and, of course, the weapon used in the Gonzalez raid.

It would be naive to expect this buyback program to solve the problem of excessive force by law enforcement. For that to happen, Americans would need to rediscover their constitutional heritage and understand why the Founding Fathers sought to put strict limits on government power. However, stranger things have happened. - - -

James Bovard Is the Author of "Freedom in Chains: the Rise of the State & the Demise of the Citizen" (St. Martin's Press, 1999)