The voices of Tax Policy Center's researchers and staff
On Tuesday, November 30, my 14-year-old son texted me during his lunch hour.
“School shooting at Oxford?”
Four years ago, I shared news about gun violence in a Parkland, FL, high school with our children. A little over a month ago, our kids were sharing similar news with me about killings in a Michigan high school just 20 miles north of their own. Everybody in our community is shaken. We all want to do something. Anything. It’s better than nothing.
Some are calling for what seem like obvious prevention measures, like metal detectors in all school buildings, student searches, or mandatory use of clear backpacks. But given the evidence, it’s unclear any of these measures will save lives.
Some state and federal level lawmakers are looking to other ideas, including new taxes on guns and ammunition. After all, if you want less of something—like the guns used to commit violence in schools—tax them, right?
The federal government already imposes a 10 percent excise tax on the import and retail sale of handguns (11 percent on other guns and ammunition).
My TPC colleague Rob McClelland reviewed the evidence and found that gun taxes probably won’t reduce gun violence. But lawmakers keep proposing new or more gun taxes anyway.
In 2018, after 17 students were killed and 17 wounded in the school shootings in Parkland, US Representative Danny Davis (D-IL) introduced the Gun Violence Prevention and Safe Communities Act. It would have increased federal excise tax rates to 20 percent on guns and 50 percent on ammunition.
In 2020, Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA) introduced the Gun Violence Prevention and Community Safety Act and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) introduced a companion bill to raise the tax on pistols, revolvers, and other firearms to 30 percent, and the levy on shells and cartridges to 50 percent.
The federal measures have gone nowhere.
At the state level, California lawmakers may reintroduce a tax on guns and ammunition to generate revenue for community-based prevention programs. The tax would apply to licensed firearms dealers, ammunition vendors, and firearm precursor part vendors, but would not reach private sellers. That means, as Rob told ABC News, people could avoid the proposed California tax by buying used handguns from legal private sellers.
This reminds me of people avoiding taxes on legalized marijuana through the booming underground market (think San Francisco).
So, not only could the proposed guns and ammunition tax encourage purchases from non-taxed private sellers, there remains no convincing evidence that any such tax would reduce criminal acts of violence. ABC News noted a RAND study that finds “little empirical evidence to indicate how taxation would influence firearm-related outcomes, such as violent crime, suicide, self-defense, or sales of firearms.”
But Ari Freilich of the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence told ABC News that it’s not the tax, but the tax revenue that matters. “We’re essentially not looking to punish anyone to deter anyone from purchasing weapons… we’re asking a very profitable industry to pay a modest surtax on their profits to help fund the work that is effective at preventing the enormous harms caused by their products.”
He argues that since revenue from the federal tax on guns and ammunition is largely used for wildlife conservation efforts, an analogous state law could “remediate the effects that the same products have on human populations and families, as well as wildlife.”
In that case, higher taxes on guns and ammunition would be like a soda tax—high enough to generate revenue for desired programs, but not necessarily so high that people won’t pay it.
Freilich’s argument: While higher taxes on guns and ammunition would not discourage weapons purchases, the revenue they generate could fund gun violence prevention and education programs, like educating kids and parents about the dangers of firearms and the importance of safe storage.
Something like gun safety theater that pretends to protect children?
To me, that’s worse than nothing.
Posts and comments are solely the opinion of the author and not that of the Tax Policy Center, Urban Institute, or Brookings Institution.
Paul Sancya/AP Photo