Beto’s Impossible Gun Ban Dreams
A growing number of prominent Democrats want owners of “assault weapons” to surrender them to the government. History says most people will ignore any such law.

Maybe Beto O’Rourke, the long-shot presidential hopeful (polling in the low single digits), didn’t get the memo about soft-pedaling gun control advocacy as “common sense” proposals, or maybe he’s making a desperate move to revive his faltering bid for the Democratic nomination. Either way, he announced over the weekend that under a hypothetical O’Rourke administration, “Americans who own AR-15s, AK-47s, will have to sell them to the government.”

Like prohibitionists of the past, O’Rourke has yet to come up with a credible scheme for getting people who oppose restrictive laws to obey them. But in his open call for confiscation of so-called “assault weapons”—semiautomatic rifles classified largely according to cosmetic characteristics—O’Rourke isn’t alone.

“The newest purity test for Democrats is whether to mandate assault weapons buybacks,” The Washington Post reported recently—with “buybacks” a popular euphemism for compensated confiscation. Donkey party potentates including Sens. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) and Cory Booker (N.J.) share Beto’s taste for imposing a new form of prohibition.

Maybe that’s a winning formula for harvesting votes, but it’s terrible as policies go, unless they really want to make the government look thoroughly impotent. Similar bans, restrictions, and confiscations have been tried before, with minimal success.

“More than a year after New Jersey imposed the toughest assault-weapons law in the country, the law is proving difficult if not impossible to enforce,” reported The New York Times in 1991. “Only four military-style weapons have been turned in to the State Police and another 14 were confiscated.” Police also knew “the whereabouts of fewer than 2,000 other guns”—out of an estimated 100,000 to 300,000 privately owned weapons in the state.

Note that New Jersey officials threatened resisters with felony prosecutions and got mass defiance in return. By contrast, O’Rourke says that “individuals who fail to participate in the mandatory buyback of assault weapons will be fined.” Where stiff prison sentences failed, fines seem unlikely to overcome opposition.

Honestly, New Jersey’s gun confiscation was easy to defy because the state had no gun registration requirement—officials had no idea as to who owned what. Compliance, then, was on the honor system.

Registration also does not exist in most of the U.S., and it’s far too late to bring it in.