Does raising the tax on firearms and ammunition make sense as a way of reducing gun violence in the United States?

A lot of Democratic lawmakers seem to think so, based on the amount of legislation at both the federal and state levels to do just that. We’re not sure they’re right, which is why we have problems with nearly all the taxation bills on the table. But they do make some important points in principle.

So-called sin taxes have their downsides, but they can have benefits. Cigarette taxes, for example, have dramatically decreased smoking, reducing healthcare costs, and aided innocent victims of secondhand tobacco smoke. So wouldn’t raising taxes on guns have a positive impact? Not necessarily.

The 2007 Small Arms Survey estimated that there are roughly 270 million civilian-owned guns in the U.S., so it’s doubtful any reduction in firsthand sales would make much of a difference for years to come. Then there’s the very reasonable question of whether, in a nation with a Second Amendment, it would be possible to ever reduce the gun supply enough to make a dent in firearm violence.

And guns cost a great deal more than cigarettes. 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.

But that leaves the more important question of how the money raised by the tax is spent. For sin taxes to be effective, the proceeds have to pay for things that reduce the social cost of bad behavior, thus sticking the bill where it belongs while the tax pays for itself through cost savings.

As Times staff writer Richard Simon reported, at least half a dozen states are considering bills to impose higher taxes on firearms and ammo — usually to the tune of 5 percent to 10 percent — and there’s a push in Congress for a nationwide 10 percent tax.

The latter bill, sponsored by Rep. Linda T. Sanchez, D-Calif., would use the tax money to pay for municipal gun buyback programs, a highly ineffective way of reducing gun violence. Most of the state bills also would pay for questionable projects.

One California bill, for example, would tax every bullet sold in the state by a nickel to pay for early childhood screening and treatment of mental illness. Useful, but would that really deter gun crime?

These bills need to be retooled to better address guns’ social costs, or be rejected.

Editorial by the Los Angeles Times

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