Would Big Taxes On Guns, Ammo Help Prevent Mass Shootings?

Published: Thursday, March 22, 2018 - 10:48am
Updated: Thursday, March 22, 2018 - 7:59pm
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Efforts are underway to dramatically raise taxes on guns and ammunition more broadly in the attempt to make it much more difficult for purchasers to buy the amount it would take for a mass shooting.

There isn’t anything to indicate there’s huge momentum for the idea, and a similar tax implemented in Seattle in 2015 hasn’t generated a dramatic sum of money for gun-violence research as intended.

Chip Miller, professor at Drake University, talked with The Show's Steve Goldstein about how viable heavily taxing guns and ammunition could be.

STEVE GOLDSTEIN: So Chip, how effective could a tax like this be?

CHIP MILLER: I don't think that's going to achieve their goal frankly. I can appreciate the concern about trying to reduce the number of firearms in the hands of criminals but raising the price is just going to impose an unfair penalty on poor people who may want them for one reason or another. And as I spoke with another person, if you put a tax on them, like taxing bullets for example, it would probably parallel something like deciding that all automobile drivers have to pay an additional tax on gasoline because of the transgressions of the DUI recipients. So it's not going to change their behavior at all and it's unfair to the rest of the people who are abiding by the rules and all of a sudden get hit with an additional charge to indulge in whatever hobby or activities they have that are legal.

GOLDSTEIN: And so you couldn't really have a selective tax? If someone wanted to buy a certain number of guns or a certain amount of ammunition, you couldn’t say OK at a certain level then we start to raise the tax on it?

MILLER: That might make some sense although in my experience what that would hit most would be people who are involved in some sort of sporting activities. I know a number of individuals who go to competitions and they go through what people would consider to be enormous amounts of ammunition. And it would be a burden to them and probably have no impact whatsoever on the individuals who are breaking the laws by even owning things in the first place. Because legal gun owners don't break the law. The ones that do typically get their firearms outside of legal channels either through theft or some other means so it wouldn't have any impact on them.

GOLDSTEIN: Now I understand Seattle had some sort of gun tax as well did that actually have any impact?

MILLER: No, there's been nothing to indicate that it had any impact on crime whatsoever. I used to live there and I did some research in the last week or so on that. They had optimistic goals about how much money they were going to raise as a Gun Violence tax and to use toward trying to reduce crime. They fell far short of their expectations because the dealers left the city the people who live there bought their firearms and ammunition elsewhere and it ended up having, they didn't meet their financial goals and it had no impact on crime. So unfortunately it was a zero all the way around.

GOLDSTEIN: Some would bring up the fact that when tobacco taxes went up, when cigarette taxes went up, fewer people were smoking. There are other reasons for that as well but also in some areas and some states like Arizona, a lot of money was raised for health care for education et cetera. Is there no parallel there at all between cigarettes and guns? Are they just so different as far as what people use them for that there really isn't a parallel?

MILLER: It looks like that would be a good comparison. But when you talk about sin taxes those are situations where only the people who are, there's a behavioral issue at the center of that. If I pay more money to drink alcohol then that's a choice I have to make and it may curtail some of my behavior. But drinking alcohol or smoking cigarettes is not criminal. So you're only affecting behavior around the margins rather than trying to get at people who are going to cause damage to the larger public.

GOLDSTEIN: Is it worth trying something like this? Is there any reason to think that it would prevent any of the shootings we've seen? I think people have cited the Las Vegas shooting most of all saying “well maybe if that particular person hadn't been able to buy as much or couldn't have afforded to buy as much maybe it would stop something.” Is it worth a try for people who think something should be done?

MILLER: The problem there is the issue of how much are you willing to spend in the hope that you would accomplish a movement of one? Most of these people are individuals who have mental problems. If you say you're only allowed to buy so much, then you run into the example they tried in New York City where they tried to ban 16-ounce soft drinks or something larger than that and people just said “well I'll buy three smaller ones.” It had no impact on their behavior. They're going to do what they want to do. If you tried to implement a tax on something and said over a certain level we're going to start taxing you they typically just break it up into smaller packages and at the extreme edges you push people to say well if I can't get my hands on firearms as this is the case in some other countries then you end up with alternative means of causing mass destruction.

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