For years, the Republicans have warned voters that Democrats intended to take their guns. For years, Democrats did no such thing, and a stock talking point was that although they wanted gun control, they did not plan to take guns away. In a passionate moment calculated to draw media attention Beto O’Rourke spoke the words long prophesized by the Republicans: “Hell, yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47.” While this certainly angered and frightened many gun owners, it was surely sweet music to the Republicans—if the Democrats put that on their platform, then Trump will probably get a second term. But, if they stay tepid on guns, then the Democrats stand a good chance of losing a key part of their base—which might cost them the election. I suspect the Republican money folks are looking hard for an anti-gun third party candidate to bankroll, just in case the Democrats decide that “Beto 2020: He’ll Take Your Guns!” is not a winning option. These are, of course, all matters of political calculation.
There are obviously legal concerns about Beto’s proposal. While presidents can issue executive orders and congress has been focused on getting re-elected by not governing, a president probably cannot confiscate assault weapons this way. While some will point to the Second Amendment, the laws governing automatic weapons, silencers and sawed-off shotguns show that certain classes of weapons can be tightly controlled, and past bans show that this approach can sometimes pass muster. So while Beto would not be able to take away assault weapons by himself, he could do so with the aid of congress. Such efforts would no doubt reach the supreme court—and the current makeup is such that the court would probably rule against them. But if Brett Kavanaugh happened to die from boofing the Devil’s Triangle then President Beto might be able to get his way. While the legal aspects of this matter are critical, there are also moral concerns about such an action.
Since this is a matter of large-scale ethics, it is reasonable to take a utilitarian approach to the matter: would taking away assault weapons create more moral good than moral bad?
On the positive side, proponents of taking away such guns point out that they are the favored weapon for mass shootings. The high capacity magazines of such weapons make them ideal for rapidly killing large numbers people—hardly shocking since they were designed to do just that. As such, if most assault weapons were successfully taken away from the public, mass shootings would be less deadly—killers would need to rely on shotguns, handguns, and non-assault rifles (I do wonder if battle rifles would be counted as assault rifles here). While one could work out rate-of-fire calculations for various weapons to determine the likely impact of an absence of assault weapons, it does make sense that the body count would be lower. This is, obviously enough, the strongest moral argument in favor of taking guns: it would reduce the number of people killed each year. What must be noted is that while assault weapons grab the headlines, handguns are the weapons that are used the most in killings—so an assault weapon ban would not impact the leading types of gun deaths.
While it might seem cold, it must be said that we (collectively) do tolerate a certain number of deaths that could be easily prevented by banning dangerous things. The obvious example would be the ban of private vehicles—that would save thousands of lives. Banning swimming pools and would also save lives. We do not ban such things because we weigh the benefits (fewer dead people) against the benefits (and the harms of the ban). So, we tolerate thousands of deaths for economic reasons, convenience and enjoyment. As such, the same consideration must be given to assault weapons.
On the positive side, assault weapons do have economic value—they must be manufactured and sold. People enjoy owning, modifying and using them. They do have some use as hunting and defense weapons. On the face of it, saying these outweigh the deaths that would be prevented by taking them away would seem heartless. But as noted above, this same reasoning is applied to so many other dangerous things—so moral consistency would require people who back taking away assault weapons to apply the same principles to all dangerous things—which would seem to morally require us to go on a banning and confiscation streak.
The negatives of such a confiscation must also be considered. On the extreme end, some people are in the “cold dead fingers” camp and say they will fight to the death for their guns. As such, efforts to confiscate guns could result in deaths and these would need to be part of the calculation. On the pragmatic side, there is also the cost to confiscate weapons. Even if the state steals them from their owners, there will still be a cost to do this. If the state compensates the owners, there will be a significant financial cost—but one easily managed by a government that can pay for presidential golf trips. There are also political concerns that are morally relevant. As noted above, if the Democrats run on the assault weapon confiscation plan, then Trump will probably get a second term. While this would be seen as great by those who support Trump, it would be terrible for most people—so the utilitarian argument would favor not backing the confiscation.