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Gun buybacks are just for show. But oh, what a show we put on in Seattle.

I’m with the critics who say that buying up a few hundred or a thousand guns won’t do anything to combat gun violence.

But that spectacle of a gun bazaar breaking out under the freeway? Now that could — should — do far more for the cause of gun control than the city melting down 700-plus guns and one missile launcher.

Seattle’s gun buyback morphed into an impromptu gun show last weekend, with collectors and other private gun lovers lining the sidewalks to pay cash for guns, often at higher prices, before police could buy them up first.

“$$ For Assault Rifles,” read one makeshift sign.

“Fast Cash For Your Gun!” read another.

Afterward, some gun enthusiasts felt they had punk’d the government, proving in one act of capitalist disobedience that a) gun buybacks are stupid and b) every gun-control action will be met with an equal and opposite gun-freedom reaction.

“Hee Hee, Gun Collectors Hijack Seattle Gun Buyback,” gloated one headline on a gun forum.

“A fine example of capitalism trumping socialism!” read another.

There are 1 or 2 million guns in Seattle and King County. So Saturday that arsenal was trimmed by less than one-tenth of 1 percent. That really is like buying up a few cases of beer to try to curb drunken driving.

Plus the city recovered only four stolen guns.

But the unexpected swarm of street-side collectors demonstrated something that people may not have been aware of — namely, that private gun sales around here are a ruleless free-for-all.

If you sell your car, for instance, you are required to report that sale to the state, including who bought it. If you don’t, you can be held criminally and civilly liable for what happens with that car.

But with a gun, all you have to do is walk up to some dude with a cardboard sign under the freeway, hand over the gun for the money, and forget about it. Not only is there no background check, you don’t even have to know the buyer’s name. There’s a gun-sale report you could file with the state. But unlike with cars, it’s voluntary.

So was the guy who just bought your gun a felon or mentally ill or capable of handling a gun? Who knows. And who cares, says the law. As long as the seller is in the dark and is selling from a private collection — i.e. is not a commercial-gun dealer — then it’s all good. And all a black hole.

Many gun owners are more rigorous than this. But they don’t have to be. Some of the gun sales under the freeway took less than two minutes.

Private car sales are reported so if there’s an accident or crime, the car can be traced to the owner. That’s because cars are dangerous pieces of machinery. If that modest system has been decried as socialistic tyranny, I haven’t heard it.

With private gun sales, though, it’s anything goes. You saw it under the freeway. It was, as the mayor said, insane.

Maybe because of that it will also be one of the only gun buybacks that ever leads to any gun control.

Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or