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Guns and Bullets: Can We Tax Our Way to Safety?

  • Feb 19, 2013 | Gail Cole

 Will Taxing Bullets Help Curb Gun Violence?

In response to last year's tragedy in Connecticut, state and federal lawmakers are once again trying to determine how to protect Americans from gun violence without quashing their second amendment rights. Possible solutions range from posting police officers in schools to requiring background checks for gun owners or renewing the ban on assault weapons or high capacity ammunition magazines. Then there is the possibility of curbing violence through taxation.

Several proposals have been put forth. These include, but are not limited to:

Tax Violent Video Games

Missouri Representative Diane Franklin (R) has called for a tax on certain violent video games. Revenue generated by the tax would fund mental health programs and law enforcement.

Tax Guns

Cook County, Illinois, which boasts one of the highest crime rates in the country, will subject sales of new firearms to a $25 tax beginning April 1, 2013. Cook County Board Commissioner President Toni Preckwinkle had hoped to also tax bullets, but that measure had less public support.

Two Democratic lawmakers in New Jersey have proposed imposing an additional 5% sales tax on on guns and ammunition. Money raised by A3727 would "fund safety infrastructure improvements in public buildings." The bill stipulates that such improvements would include, but not be limited to: security cameras, panic buttons, and electronic notification systems for school-wide emergencies.

Tax Ammunition

Back in 1993, the late Senator Patrick Moynihan (D-New York) suggested taxing hollow-tipped bullets at ten thousand percent. He astutely observed, "Guns don't kill people; bullets do." His position is being echoed today.

California lawmakers are considering imposing a 5-cent tax per bullet; revenue would "expand a program that screens children for mental illness." Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) says, "It shouldn't be so easy to buy bullets, the very thing that makes a gun deadly."

A group of Harvard professors has argued that "a 'substantial' national tax on all firearms and ammunition 'would provide stable revenue to meaningfully target gun violence prevention.'" Professor Dariush Mozaffarian notes that "past successes in reducing other harmful behaviors and accidents provide a set of evidence-based tools to address the many underlying root causes of gun violence."

Pigouvian Tax

The Harvard professors and numerous lawmakers are essentially calling for Pigouvian taxes on ammunition and guns. Pigouvian taxes (named after English economist Arthur C. Pigou) "are designed to correct what economists call 'market failures' or 'negative externalities' that impose spillover costs on society… ." Pigouvian taxes already exist in the form of so-called sin taxes. For example, many states tax tobacco products at a higher rate than groceries because smoking can cause ill health and cost society, and higher prices have been linked to reduced rates of smoking. The Cook County gun tax will generate revenue "to help pay healthcare costs from gun violence."

It's an interesting idea. But there are inherent challenges to Pigouvian taxes, such as "setting the tax rate at a level roughly equal to the cost it places on society." And it has been argued that increasing taxes on guns and ammunition "penalizes law-abiding gun owners for exercising a constitutionally protected civil right." It has also been argued that "[t]here's no indication that slapping taxes on legal behavior prevents illegal behavior."

Tempers flare over this issue. Emotions run high. And perhaps they should. It touches two of the "unalienable rights" put forth in the Declaration of Independence: life and liberty.

photo credit: Tigresblanco via photopin cc

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Gail Cole
Avalara Author
Gail Cole
Gail Cole
Avalara Author Gail Cole
Gail began researching and writing about sales tax in 2012 and has been fascinated with it ever since. She has a penchant for uncovering unusual tax facts, and endeavors to make complex sales tax laws more digestible for both experts and laypeople.