The Time Is Now to Recommit to a National Assault Weapon Ban | Opinion

It's been more than two years since I first called for a ban and national mandatory buyback of all military-style assault weapons, and the body count has only continued to rise since then.

Americans will be safer if our communities are once and for all free from weapons of war. In the synagogues of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Poway, California, gunmen used AR-15-style semiautomatic assault rifles; 11 died and six were injured in Pittsburgh, and one died and three were injured in Poway. A gunman toting an AK-47-style rifle with a 75-round drum killed three and injured 17 at California's Gilroy Garlic Festival. The same kind of rifle was used days later to kill 23 and injure 23 during an anti-Latino murder spree in El Paso, Texas. The very next day, a man with a modified AR-15-style weapon and a 100-round drum killed nine and injured 17 outside a nightclub in Dayton, Ohio. Later that month, an AR-15-style weapon once again was used to kill seven and injure 25 in Midland and Odessa, Texas.

In August, a teenager illegally carrying an AR-15-style rifle went 20 miles, crossing a state line to play vigilante; Kyle Rittenhouse found the trouble he was looking for, killing two people and injuring another.

These are just the assault-weapon slayings that made big headlines. There are plenty more.

We don't have to live this way—so why do we choose to? No other developed nation tolerates this carnage.

Soon after a racist maniac armed with an arsenal, including two AR-15-style rifles, killed 51 and wounded 40 in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, their government enacted an assault weapon ban and buyback. And soon after a two-day murder spree claimed 22 lives in Nova Scotia this year, Canada banned assault weapons too.

But we couldn't make it happen here after so many children died in their schools in Sandy Hook and Parkland, after worshipers died at Sutherland Springs and Pittsburgh and Poway, or after people went out for fun and were left in body bags in Orlando and Las Vegas and Dayton.

Even the wounded are never the same. The high-velocity bullet fired from a military-style, semiautomatic assault weapon moves almost three times as fast as a 9mm handgun bullet, delivering far more energy and damage. The bullets create cavities through the victim, wrecking a wider swath of tissue, organs and blood vessels. Don't take my word for it; ask a trauma surgeon, or a coroner.

Assault weapons combine that deadliness with low recoil and higher-capacity magazines, so that more shots can be fired accurately and quickly without reloading. These weapons are designed to kill as many people as possible, as fast as possible.

They belong on battlefields, not in our communities as the murder tools of choice for hateful extremists or untrained law enforcement and military wannabes.

Reinstating the federal assault weapons ban that was in effect from 1994 to 2004 isn't enough. This would prohibit manufacture and sales, but would not affect weapons already possessed. It makes no sense to ban future production yet leave millions of these weapons in our communities; it would take generations before they'd no longer be used to kill innocent Americans.

So in May 2019, I introduced the Freedom from Assault Weapons Act. My bill builds upon assault weapon bans that have been introduced previously in Congress, defining assault weapons in the same way. But it would not "grandfather in" weapons already in circulation; instead, after a period in which the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives would develop a price, ATF would buy back the banned guns from people or businesses. All guns bought back would be destroyed.

Owners would have two years in which to sell their weapons in the buyback program; after that, the possession, sale and transfer of these banned assault weapons would become illegal and subject to criminal prosecution. The bill contains exceptions for law enforcement, and allows citizens to possess these weapons at hunting/shooting clubs.

Gun store in Texas
Gun store in Texas Gilles Mingasson/Getty Images

The National Rifle Association—an organization so corrupt it was looted by its own executives—wants you to believe the government would go door to door seizing guns or arresting people. That's just their usual bull; read the bill. Possession would become a crime, the same way that drug possession is a crime—if you're caught with it outside a hunting or shooting club, you go to jail. No one is going house to house looking for assault weapons.

Australia spent an estimated $230 million in U.S. dollars when it banned and bought back 643,726 rifles and shotguns at market value after a murderer used military-style weapons to kill 35 people in April 1996.

The United States will not get off as cheaply.

Based on manufacturing figures and other indirect data, there are about 17 million assault weapons out there. If we offer $200 to buy back each weapon—as many local governments have—then it would cost about $3.4 billion; at $1,000 each, the cost would be about $17 billion.

Yet our federal government is spending an estimated $6.6 trillion this year, according to the Congressional Budget Office; $17 billion would be 0.257 percent of that, and we don't even have to spend it all in one year. Meanwhile, the Trump tax cuts, which went disproportionately to the already-rich and corporations, are projected to add $1.9 trillion to deficits over a decade.

It would take a relative pittance to keep our families, friends and neighbors safer from dying in hails of gunfire—a relatively tiny investment to avoid dreadful slaughter.

An assault weapons buyback is not the entire solution to gun violence. We need truly universal background checks for every gun purchase in America. We need to do more to take guns out of domestic abusers' hands. We need a national gun registry. We need national laws so that laws can't be evaded by a short trip across a state border. And we need real solutions to root out the underlying causes of violence: poverty, lack of access to education and economic opportunity, and a lack of hope in too many of our cities. But removing these weapons of war from our streets must be a piece of the puzzle, and doing so would undoubtedly save lives.

Spare us the pearl-clutching about constitutional freedoms. We're a joke if we don't consider the right to survive supreme over any other, and we can defend our own lives and homes perfectly well without weapons designed for mass killing.

Let's be clear: Our courts haven't discerned a constitutional right to have assault weapons. In fact, when the Supreme Court held in 2008 that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to possess a firearm, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote that this right "is not unlimited" and is "not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose."

And since that District of Columbia v. Heller decision, federal appeals courts repeatedly have upheld assault weapons bans. Many other firearms are available for self-protection, they found, and the danger that assault weapons pose to society is a legitimate reason for states and localities to ban them.

All we need is the will to do it.

I mustered the will after thinking about my dad and two brothers who have risked their lives as law enforcement officers, and about my son Nelson and daughter Cricket, who shouldn't have to grow up doing active-shooter drills in school, cowering under their desks with the lights off.

I renewed that will after watching the teenagers who lived through the Parkland massacre drop their pens and textbooks and take to the streets, joined by millions, to insist that we make a lasting change.

The body count will keep rising if we don't act. What must it take for all of us to find the will?

Rep. Eric Swalwell, a Democrat from California's San Francisco Bay area, is co-chair of the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, and serves on the House Judiciary Committee and the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. Follow him on Twitter: @RepSwalwell.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.

Editor's Picks

Newsweek cover
  • Newsweek magazine delivered to your door
  • Unlimited access to
  • Ad free experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts
Newsweek cover
  • Unlimited access to
  • Ad free experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts