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During the Democratic debate last night, candidate and former Texas Congressman Betto O'Rourke doubled down on his recent pledge to institute mandatory buybacks of certain kinds of semiautomatic rifles. NPR's law enforcement correspondent, Martin Kaste, looked into the feasibility of such a policy.
MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Beto O'Rourke's hometown of El Paso was hard hit by a mass shooter using a semiautomatic rifle last month. And since then, he's made gun control his signature issue.
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BETO O'ROURKE: Hell yes, we're going to take your AR-15, your AK-47.
O'ROURKE: We're not going to allow it to be used against our fellow Americans anymore.
KASTE: And O'Rourke isn't alone in this. Some form of mandatory buyback has been endorsed by Kamala Harris, Cory Booker and Bill de Blasio. Other Democrats, though, are more cautious, such as Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar.
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AMY KLOBUCHAR: And I personally think we should start with a voluntary buyback program.
KASTE: There are political reasons for the hesitation here. In a recent NPR/PBS/Marist poll, 70% of Democrats supported the idea of mandatory buybacks. But for independents, that number was 40%. And Republicans hated the idea, with support from only 23%.
JONATHAN METZL: It plays right into the hands of Republicans, who are always just trying to say Democrats are out to take your guns. And this has been a very powerful and effective rallying cry.
KASTE: Jonathan Metzl is a psychiatrist and professor and the author of "Dying Of Whiteness," a book that examines the role of guns, among other things, in conservative politics. He says talk of confiscating guns can be political poison with certain voters.
METZL: Guns are not just any symbols. They're also very racialized symbols. For centuries in this country, we had a history where only white Americans were able to own guns, were able to carry guns in public. And so based on history, when you say, I'm going to take away somebody's guns, it's really kicking away a notion - a particular notion of whiteness.
KASTE: There are practical problems here too. Advocates for this idea point to the government's previous success in restricting other kinds of guns. But UCLA law professor Adam Winkler says those were different situations. He wrote the book "Gunfight: The Battle Over The Right To Bear Arms In America."
ADAM WINKLER: Well, in the 1930s, when the federal government decided that machine guns and sawed off shotguns were the kind of weapons that were really only used by criminals, there was an effort to try to prohibit access to those weapons. But it wasn't through a mandatory gun buyback program. Instead, the government required registration and imposed a special tax on the possession of those firearms.
KASTE: Journalist and gun rights advocate Jon Stokes expects that something similar might happen this time around. He's part of open source defense, an online organization which he describes as a post-culture-war gun rights collective.
JON STOKES: We're definitely not going to see door-to-door gun confiscations. I don't expect that order would be given. And if it was given, I don't expect that the police would actually carry it out.
KASTE: Stokes says the real question would be, which guns exactly are subject to the buyback? Beto O'Rourke has talked about banning, quote, "battlefield weapons," but Stokes says that's not a very precise definition.
STOKES: Banning machine guns was straightforward in the sense the machine guns are full auto. It was, if it's full auto, which is simple for us to define and recognize, then you don't get it. We won't have that with the AR.
KASTE: AR-15 style rifles these days are all about being modular. They're almost like Legos. And Stokes thinks it would be pretty easy to get around the technical definitions of what's illegal. Finally, it's important to remember that AR-15 style rifles account for far fewer deaths than handguns, says Jonathan Metzl.
METZL: A real conversation about gun injury and death needs to take account of other kinds of weapons and other kinds of shootings.
KASTE: And though he believes in firearms restrictions, Metzl says talk of mandatory buybacks of AR-15s risks becoming both a central issue and, when it comes to overall gun deaths, a distraction.
Martin Kaste, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAMBERT'S "MANDAL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.