‘Gun and ammo taxes’ is a plan with room to backfire

Circulating on pro-gun websites this week is a video clip from 1993 of Hillary Clinton, then a relatively new First Lady, lending unequivocal approval to a proposal of a 25% tax hike on purchases of handguns and “automatic weapons,” as Senator Bill Bradley put it, as well as a new $2,500 license fee for dealers.  Bradley referred to the measures as a way to “directly tax the purveyors of violence,” with Clinton nodding in agreement. In an interview this summer, Clinton made reference to victims of mass shootings needing some way to pay for the damages such crimes may inflict on survivors.

There have been a lot of references to applying measures in public health to gun legislation on Guns.com and the general press of late. Having spent many years in the public health field, I cannot help but connect the dots between public health taxation strategies and those proposed in 1993, which may reappear under the next President. These strategies attempt damage control with a two-pronged approach of remediation and prevention, which has proven only somewhat effective over time.

Strategy #1: Remediate the problem with taxes

In 1993, the public health field was in a heady state, with well-meaning local moms and government worker bees contributing to the preparation of long, drawn-out series of lawsuits that would culminate in the 1998 Master Tobacco Settlement.  It made tobacco the first industry to commonly have the word “Big” attached to its name. Included in its terms are clauses that, to this day, require the likes of RJ Reynolds and Liggett to turn over a portion of their profits to states, ostensibly to contribute to tobacco prevention campaigns.

Today, only five states spend 50 percent or more of those funds on tobacco prevention. Twenty states spend less than 10 percent of those proceeds, which are in the double-digit millions, on tobacco prevention. The promise of using product revenues to prevent kids from starting has been dampened by other demands – like highway construction, or in my home state of New Mexico, teaching health professionals not to oppress others on the basis of white privilege.

If the public health field hasn’t the stroke or will to keep tobacco remediation money on point following a historic legal victory, there’s little chance that will happen with proceeds from gun sales.

Strategy #2: Prevent the problem by making it expensive

So-called sin taxes are more than a revenue generator for state and local governments. They’re a public health tool that, in some instances, has been shown to decrease youthful initiation to an undesired or addictive behavior.  And they work, to an extent. Price enhancing strategies also backfire as taxes increase, creating class divisions between users.  High taxes on desired products ensure there’ll always be an inferior but pricey product, adhered to by consumers who can’t really afford it, and a luxury product that’s considered a sign of prestige in a user’s hands.  Think M-D 20/20 versus Grey Goose.

An example of this strategy may be playing out now in the NFA market – described by one New York Times contributor as “gun control that actually works.” NFA-regulated suppressors are touted as bringing an element of health – reduced risk of hearing loss – to the shooting range for the first time since the cap and ball were in use. Thanks in part to NFA-associated costs, these devices are available only to the well-heeled gun owner.

Ramp up taxes on handguns or all (may I assume the Senator meant semi-) autos, and access to the world’s most effective tool for home defense is eliminated for virtually all low-income and many moderate income households. Is that what Hillary and her associates wish to accomplish?

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the position of Guns.com.