States and cities take gun laws into their own hands with tax plans

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) (C), Sen. Christopher Murphy (D-Conn.) (L), and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) participate in a news conference to urge their colleagues into passing tougher gun laws, on Capitol Hill, April 11, 2013 in Washington, D.C.

On Capitol Hill today, 68 members of the U.S. Senate, the world’s greatest deliberative body, voted “aye” on the question of whether it’s okay to talk about gun control.

The law on which debate will soon begin includes, among other things, an expansion of background checks for gun buyers.

Progress on anything in Washington lately has been incremental at best. On gun control in particular, states and cities are moving faster, and one thing they’re considering is taxing guns and ammunition.

Since April 1, Cook County, home to Chicago, has had what it calls a “violence tax.”

“It’s a $25 tax per firearm that we sell,” Fred Lutger explains. He owns Freddie Bear Sports, in Tinley Park, Ill.

Revenues go to the Cook County Health & Hospitals System. Last year, it treated more than 800 victims of gun violence, at an average cost of $52,000 per patient.

Lutger says he’s concerned about the level of gun violence in Chicago, but he points out Tinley Park is in the suburbs, a half hour from downtown.

“They gotta curb it,” he says. “But this isn’t the way to do it.”

Politicians in many cities and states think it is.

Nancy Staudt, the Edward G. Lewis Chair in Law and Public Policy at the University of Southern California, says a tax on firearms isn’t unlike other taxes on tobacco or alcohol.

“Individuals who want to own guns, that’s fine,” she says, noting many constitutional rights are not limitless. “The Second Amendment allows you to own guns, but there are certain costs to society of owning that gun, and you’ll need to help pay for those.”

The California State Assembly is considering a five-cent tax on each and every bullet, to pay for an early childhood mental health program. Next door, Nevada is considering its own tax -- on both ammunition and firearms, to pay for mental health services and to help crime victims.

“It sends a message to Washington that this is important to us,” says Nevada Assembly Majority Leader William Horne, who sponsored the bill.

Rep. Linda Sánchez (D-Calif.) has taken notice. She wants a 10 percent tax on all concealable firearms purchases. State, tribal and local governments, Sanchez says, could use that revenue “for antiviolence campaigns, gun safety campaigns, and firearm buyback programs.”

Sánchez says a tax is the only way to fund those programs. As of today, however, she’s failed to find a single Republican to cosponsor her bill.

About the author

David Gura is a reporter for Marketplace, based in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

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