Gun owners feared President Barack Obama would use the “Jade Helm 15” military training exercise as cover for confiscating Americans’ firearms and implementing martial law this summer. The exercise ended in September to little fanfare and without any guns having been confiscated.
But the underlying fear that Obama—and, now, Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton—plans to confiscate Americans’ guns hasn’t gone away with the change in seasons. It’s merely morphed and burst out into the mainstream after yet another mass shooting earlier this month at a community college in Oregon.
The current wave of speculation began when Clinton said the U.S. should consider a national gun buyback program like those implemented in Australia while responding to a question at an Oct. 16 town hall event in New Hampshire.
“The Australian government, as part of trying to clamp down on the availability of automatic weapons, offered a good price for buying hundreds of thousands of guns. Then they basically clamped down going forward in terms of having more of a background check approach, more of a permitting approach,” she said. “But they believed, and I think the evidence supports them, by offering to buy back those guns they were able to curtail the supply and to set a different standard for gun purchases in the future.”
Clinton noted that several U.S. communities had implemented their own gun buy back programs. She said it was worth exploring whether one could be arranged at the national level and cited the example of President Barack Obama’s “cash for clunkers” program, which gave consumers a rebate to trade in old cars for more fuel-efficient vehicles.
“So think that’s worth considering,” she said. “I do not know enough detail to tell you how we would do it, or how would it work, but certainly the Australian example is worth looking at.”
Clinton also mocked the National Rifle Association as trying to “scare responsible folks into thinking a black helicopter is going to land in the front yard and somebody’s going to show up and take your guns.” The gun rights group immediately pounced on her comments.
“This validates what the NRA has said all along,” Chris Cox, the executive director of the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action, said in a statement. “The real goal of gun control supporters is gun confiscation. Hillary Clinton, echoing President Obama’s recent remarks on the same issue, made that very clear.”
An article posted on the website for the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action also disputed Clinton’s comparison of a national gun buyback program to the “cash for clunkers” initiative. It argued that Australian gun owners never had a “choice” to turn over their guns for money, but were compelled gun to do so or else have their weapons forcibly confiscated and potentially face prison time.
“If you own a gun now, take heed,” the post read. “President Obama and now Hillary Clinton finally made clear what they’re really after – national gun confiscation.”
Conservative pundits amplified the NRA fear-mongering about a “mandatory” U.S. gun buyback program on Twitter:
In massive gaffe, Hillary’s admission that gun confiscation is something she’d consider confirms exactly what @NRA has said for years.
— S.E. Cupp (@secupp) October 16, 2015
Make no mistake, when Clinton refers to common sense Australian gun control measures, she’s talking about confiscation #2A
— Katie Pavlich (@KatiePavlich) October 19, 2015
Even Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) joined the pile-on:
— Greg Abbott (@GregAbbott_TX) October 18, 2015
The pushback prompted MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell to ask Clinton aide Jen Palmieri last week whether the Democratic presidential frontrunner was suggesting confiscating Americans’ guns.
“Of course not,” Palmieri said. “What she was referring to is places where there have been mass shootings and the countries have done something to act on it. She’s put forward a very common-sense proposal that would have background checks for everyone, that would remove the special protections the gun industry has from liability. But it’s all very common-sense measures that the majority of the public supports.”
Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump kept up up gun owners’ blood pressure when he insisted Obama planned to confiscate Americans’ firearms at an Oct. 19 rally in South Carolina.
“You know, the President is thinking about signing an executive order where he wants to take your guns away,” he said, as quoted by CNN. “You hear about this? Not gonna happen. That won’t happen. But that’s a tough one, I think that’s a tough one for him to do. There’s plenty of executive orders being signed, you know that. And we can’t let that go on.”
When pressed about those comments Tuesday on CNN’s “New Day,” Trump said he was merely repeating what he’d heard on the news.
“I’ve heard that he wants to. And I heard it, I think, on your network,” he told CNN’s Alisyn Camerota. “Somebody said that that’s what he’s thinking about. I didn’t say that he’s signing it. I said I think that would be a tough one to sign actually.”
Presidential rival Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who has the endorsement of the far-right Gun Owners of America, was milking the right’s gun confiscation fears days before Trump’s South Carolina rally. He sent an email to supporters on Oct. 16 that depicted the President in a helmet and military uniform and warned “Obama is coming for our guns,” according to The Washington Post.
“Obama’s aides have alerted the press that if Congress won’t cooperate — Obama will use executive actions to, ‘keep guns out of the hands of criminals and others who shouldn’t have access to them,'” the fundraising email read, as quoted by The Post. “Friend, by ‘others who shouldn’t have…them,’ Obama means you and me.”
Ahead of the President’s meeting with families of Umpqua Community College shooting victims earlier this month, The Washington Post reported that he was “seriously considering” using executive action to expand background checks to more firearms purchases. The anonymous senior administration official who spoke to the newspaper said nothing to suggest Obama was pursuing a gun buyback program or gun confiscation, though.
During her conversation with Trump, CNN’s Camerota said that it would be “impossible” for Obama to sign an executive order taking away people’s guns because it would violate the Constitution.
“Well he can’t sign an executive order on immigration either and he did,” an undeterred Trump responded.
“Certainly, I think he’s currently thinking about doing it,” he said later, referring to taking away Americans’ guns.
The conservative echo chamber ran with Trump’s warning about Obama and continued to hammer Clinton. Breitbart accused CNN of “lying” for saying that Obama has not announced plans to sign an executive order to take away or restrict access to guns. John Lott, the president of the Crime Prevention Research Center, wrote at The Daily Caller that Clinton was “wrong” about Australia’s buyback program, which he argued actually made that country less safe.
The gun confiscation hysteria officially hit fever swamp levels Thursday with a post that appeared on Intellihub, one of the conspiracy theory websites that fueled the summer’s unfounded “Jade Helm 15” paranoia. The post referenced an appeals court ruling that upheld gun control laws banning possession of semi-automatic weapons and large-capacity magazines last week. Those laws were enacted in New York and Connecticut after the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
The post’s headline read: “It is here: Court ruling paves way for mass confiscation of firearms in America.” But if the gun confiscation paranoia follows the “Jade Helm 15” trajectory, it’ll be all but forgotten in a few short months.
TPM illustration by Christine Frapech.
Catherine Thompson is a senior editor for Talking Points Memo in New York City. She came to the site in 2013 and reported on national affairs. Previously, she worked as a research assistant to investigative reporter Wayne Barrett. She can be reached at email@example.com.