Can we tax our way out of gun violence?

Taxes, Money, Rights

Gun control is hard, but taxes are easy.

That appears to be the rationale behind new gun laws recently passed in Seattle, Washington; in August, the city council there unanimously approved legislation consisting of two ordinances, one dealing with mandatory reporting of stolen guns, and the other, more controversial law imposing taxes on the sale of guns and ammunition.

The case for the law

Bolstered by the results of a Council-funded report by Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center, the legislation text supplied a wealth of alarming statistics in support of gun regulation:

  • In Seattle, guns were involved in 69% of homicides, 17% of robbery incidents and 8% of aggravated assaults.
  • In King County, there were 169 firearm deaths in 2012 of which 47 were homicides, 119 suicides, 2 accidental and 1 undetermined.
  • The total economic costs of firearm deaths and injuries in King County averaged $181 million per year from 2009-2013.

The Council had to rely on local research, as the federal government had long since stopped conducting authoritative studies that could use be used to support gun-control legislation. The lack of federal research was noted in the Harborview report:

The public’s interest has been focused… on mass shootings, the most startling of which was the shooting at Sandy Hook… The president responded with 23 executive orders in 2013, one of which was to lift a 17-year ban on federally sponsored firearm research. While this ban has been lifted, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has yet to fund any firearm research since the mid 1990’s.

Still, taken as a whole, the available stats made fast-tracking the legislation an easy sell in a progressive city sympathetic to gun control in general.

What does the legislation do, and will it work?

The mandatory reporting ordinance introduces a popular regulation already in place in many states: Within twenty-four hours of a firearm being lost or stolen, the owner must report it to police. The legislation text asserts that mandatory reporting assists police in tracking firearms used in crimes and in returning guns to their rightful owners. Fairly boilerplate, even supported by a majority of gun owners.

The controversy arises from the new taxes: a nickel tax on every bullet and $25 on every firearm sold. The tax promises to raise between $300,000 and $500,000 a year, but in 2014, the total taxpayer burden for treating gun-related injuries was $12,000,000 at Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center alone. Gun rights groups have already jumped on this, claiming that the only reason the tax exists is to drive gun shops out of town.

On August 24th, the NRA, the Second Amendment Foundation, and the National Shooting Sports Foundation filed a lawsuit against the City of Seattle on the grounds that the gun tax constitutes a gun regulation, violating Washington State’s preemption statute that blocks cities from regulating the sale of firearms on their own.

Even assuming the ordinances stand, “sin taxing” on a local level has a history of failure. Take for example the Danish fat tax. Well-meaning Danish bureaucrats thought a tax on saturated fats would reduce obesity and its corresponding strain on the healthcare system; what resulted was outrage and widespread shopping for hotdogs and cheese pastries in Germany.

It may be that Seattle’s Council members are playing a long game. Perhaps they hope to have the NRA shoot the ordinances down to make a point about how impossible it is to do anything to curb gun violence in Seattle.

More likely, it’s simply an attempt to do something—anything—in response to the desperation that so many leaders and citizens in Seattle and elsewhere feel in the wake of rising gun violence.

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