Politics & Policy

A Tax on Freedom

Punitive taxes on guns and ammunition will punish only the law-abiding.

‘I’m not asking to take away people’s guns,” Maryland legislator Jon Cardin nervously told Politico this week. “I’m just saying that for an activity that is relatively dangerous, obviously, people who participate in that activity should pay the full costs of that activity.” America, witness a guileful new tactic of the gun-control movement.

Cardin (a nephew of U.S. Senator Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat), who wishes “to tax bullets at 50 percent,” was outlining an increasingly popular progressive idea: If you can’t regulate something, why not tax it in lieu? Similar proposals — by which states impose specific levies on purchases of firearms and assorted peripheral items — are now being considered in California, Nevada, and New Jersey; and in Chicago, which city has apparently learned nothing from the very public slap on the wrist that 2010’s McDonald v. Chicago delivered, a $25-per-firearm “fee” was just put into effect. Other states already assess charges on guns — including Massachusetts, where Mitt Romney infamously raised rates by 400 percent (from $25 to $100) while governor. Such measures have traditionally been justified on grounds of economic necessity or, more candidly, as a way of limiting gun sales. The “participants should pay” card is a new one.

As a matter of general principle, I’m not wild about the modern tendency to reduce the value of everything in society to the sum of its externalities. Liberty has a value in and of itself and, in America, it is codified stridently and without caveat into our highest laws. Still, while attempts to measure how much freedom we “need” are usually fruitless and invariably inconsistent, they are, unfortunately, likely to increase. The closer we edge toward socialized medicine for all — and the more that we expand the scope of its consequence-blunting bedfellows in the welfare system — the worse the temptation will get. If the state is on the hook for your behavior, it has greater incentive and justification to regulate it. As I learned in Britain over my first 26 years, whether it is drinking and smoking, eating red meat or salt, snacking on grapes in a vehicle, or having any other form of private fun that gets a bad name among the neo-puritans of the modern Left, the government needs only to issue the magic words “public health” and a cast of fashionable acolytes will rush to its side to be censorious on cue.

The idea is not total bunk, of course. Leviathan or no Leviathan, our unalienable rights do have externalities. But the thing is: Almost everything does. Speech, as Sonny Bunch has observed, can be dangerous. After all, “newspapers advocated for war in their editorial pages . . . and reported false intelligence to the masses.” Elections are expensive, too, he notes: “What about a modest, $25/vote tax on those who wish to exercise their rights in such locales”? Bunch’s tongue is firmly in his cheek but his overarching point is strong: When it comes to our basic rights, the rule of thumb is that as little as possible should be put in the way of their exercise. The Second Amendment is often treated differently from the other component parts of the Bill of Rights, but it damn well shouldn’t be. Unless you consider that the right to bear arms is less important in a republic than is the right to vote — which I most decidedly do not — then putting a special tax on firearms is no less outrageous than putting a tax on voting. Why one but not the other? (The inconsistency here is outrageous: Sex has negative externalities, too. Let’s see how using that as a justification for regulation goes . . . )

This being a matter of basic principle, for once there is no need for an endless dissection of the Constitution’s meaning. The states in question do not tax only certain guns and bullets but all guns and bullets — including those that nobody disputes are fully subject to constitutional protection. Given that federal law prohibits Americans from buying handguns across state lines without incurring expensive FFL (federal firearms license) transfer fees — and that states tend to regulate the nature of other out-of-state gun purchases — this gives the residents of those states no option but to pay the taxes if they wish to exercise their basic right to keep and bear arms. This is unacceptable and it is capricious, and if you want to see just how indefensible it is on principle, try asking someone who claims that voter IDs are an improper obstacle to voting why they simultaneously support taxes on firearms.

The measures are downright useless, to boot. Whatever the apostles of taxation might have you believe, “fees” do have the effect of “taking away guns,” because they severely limit the ability of the poor to buy them. Wealthier gun owners, meanwhile, continue to buy guns as they did before but end up paying a little more to do so. And criminals? They remain unaffected. As the Los Angeles Times observes:

A 5 percent tax on a $300 handgun amounts to an extra $15. A person bent on mass murder would hardly be discouraged by a low gun tax, and it would take many years for the higher retail costs to filter down to the criminal market in second-hand guns; moreover, a criminal who needs a gun as a primary tool of his trade would hardly be put off by a slightly higher price.

Too much of that sort of reasonable argument, and I’ll have to conclude that the L.A. Times has something against America’s children.

The setup is even more risible when it comes to bullets. As Kelly Phillips of Forbes observes, to believe that such taxes will do anything to reduce crime requires one to suspend one’s disbelief to a frightening degree and to argue that criminals are likely to think: “Well, I would kill both of those folks but that extra five cents on the second victim would just be too much. I have to save up this month.”

Fewet than 10 percent of criminals convicted for gun offenses buy their weapons in shops. As taxes are levied only in shops — not on the street — law-abiding gun owners end up “paying” for the consequences of behavior that the vast majority of them would never countenance, while the bad eggs escape tax-free. Jon Cardin’s claim that “people who participate in [an] activity should pay the full costs of that activity” is disingenuous in the extreme. What Cordin is suggesting is akin to taxing potatoes to pay for the consequences of potato guns. Those who create the externalities are not paying much at all; that honor, as ever, falls to their victims.

— Charles C. W. Cooke is an editorial associate at National Review.


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