Ivan Eland is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute. He has a PhD in Public Policy from George Washington University and has been director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, and he spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues.
Earlier this year he published War and the Rogue Presidency Restoring the Republic after Congressional Failure.
So here’s a thing.
A common talking point on gun control, for people discussing banning assault rifles, military-grade weapons, or any particularly category of guns, or all guns for that matter, is the difficulty of actually removing any guns that were banned from the people who currently own them.
The people who have guns are probably the sort of people who aren’t all that minded to give them up, and on top of that, they are the sort of people who, you know, have guns, so that’s an issue. My cold dead hands and all that.
Gun control advocates say that wouldn’t be such a problem as it’s made out to be, and their opponents say that it’s not really on because it’s the sort of problem where you don’t know how big the problem is until you have that problem, and that’s not a good position to be in.
But now we have a test case.
On the March 15 an Australian immigrant murdered 51 people at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, apparently motivated by alt-right white nationalist ideology. He was arrested and will be tried next year, but in the immediate aftermath the prime minister announced that there would major new restrictions to firearm ownership.
Before the attack, there was relatively little control on the ownership of guns in New Zealand, it was probably the only developed country other than the United States not to require the registration of firearms, although they did require the registration of the type of automatic rifles that were to be banned.
New Zealand is a relatively small and thinly populated country, about the same size and population as Colorado, and with a similar layout, a couple of bigger cities, some smaller towns and lots of wilderness. There are a lot of guns in New Zealand, perhaps one gun for every four people, which is a huge number by the standards of most developed countries, but only a fraction of the level of gun ownership in the US.
Anyway, military grade automatic rifles have been banned in New Zealand, and this week the buy-back scheme ended. This scheme offered 95 per cent of the purchase price of now-banned guns to owners who turned them in.
So how did it go? 56,000 weapons were handed in, but it’s difficult to say exactly how successful that was. What percentage of the banned guns were handed in. To work that out, you need to have an idea how many of those guns were out there in the first place, and estimates of that vary, to say the least. The Council of Licensed Firearms Owners is New Zealand pro-gun organization, and they claim that there were 170,000 such guns in the country before the buy-back, and their spokesperson Nicole McKee said that that “50,000 is not a number to boast about”.
That’s a reasonable point, it would seem that exactly one third of those 170,000 guns were turned in, but before the buyback began, New Zealand police said that there were about 15,000 registered guns in that category to be collected.
Since they collected nearly four times that number, it’s clear that the 15,000 was a big underestimate, but there’s no real evidence for the 170,000 either. The person giving it is, as I say, from the biggest pro-gun organization in New Zealand, and it’s a bit ironic that it’s called the Council of Licensed Firearms Owners, since if what they are saying is true, then way more than 90 percent of their members were breaking the law by not licensing their firearms as required by law.
But one thing that didn’t happen was any resistance. Many guns were handed in, undoubtedly many weren’t, though it’s impossible to really say how many, but there were no shoot-outs, no armed resistance. All countries are different of course, but New Zealand is about as close to a guinea pig mini-United States as you can get. It’s got a similar settler frontier spirit, it’s got wide open spaces where people live far from any real government authority.
So how is a ban on already-widely distributed firearms going? Middling. No resistance, no violence. Lots of guns collected, probably lots not collected, but it’s unclear how many. And will it reduce violence? We’ll see.