Don’t Ban Assault Weapons—Tax Them

A 2018 protest in Florida following the Parkland shooting.

A 2018 protest in Florida following the Parkland shooting. KMH Photovideo/Shutterstock

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COMMENTARY | A solution from the founding era might work again today.

The nation is debating what to do about assault-style weapons, what gun-rights advocates like to call modern sporting rifles. Gun-rights champions argue that these weapons are in common use, and hence protected by the Second Amendment. Gun-control supporters respond that these weapons have no place on our streets and ought to be banned. But there’s a better solution, and one that avoids the constitutional objections typically raised by gun-rights advocates. Rather than banning these weapons, the time has come to tax them.

Taxation offers one of the most promising and underutilized tools to change the calculus of gun violence in America. Few Americans realize that guns and ammunition are already taxed to pay for conservation efforts. Gun owners have happily tolerated federal taxes for years to support this worthwhile public-policy goal. Surely even the most die-hard gun-rights supporter could not argue that, although it is constitutional to tax weapons and ammo to protect animals, it is not constitutional to tax them to protect people.

Taxation sidesteps entirely the constitutional qualms some have over assault-weapons bans. It also addresses the criticism often voiced that singling out assault weapons is irrational because it would leave hunting rifles that have many of the same features on the streets. One of the problems that gun bans pose is that that gun makers simply modify their weapons to make them street-legal. Moreover, gun bans do not address the problem posed by guns already in private possession. Rather than requiring an expensive buyback program, gun taxation would use a market-based strategy to reduce the number of guns in circulation by effectively raising the price of ownership. The additional revenue generated by this policy could be used to fund research on violence reduction and support existing programs to help local communities deal with the ravages of gun violence.

Another advantage of using taxation instead of gun bans is that such a policy would provide an opportunity to reward the vast majority of American gun owners who already engage in safe gun practices. Tax policies could offer tax deductions for the purchase of gun safes or for the cost of safety courses. Weapons stored at federally licensed firing ranges or hunting lodges might incur no tax. But if you wanted the convenience of having such a weapon at home, you could be taxed for the privilege. Most Americans recognize that convenience usually comes at a price. Individuals could decide how much they value easy access to their guns and pay the tax on home storage.

This approach has the additional advantage of shifting the debate away from an argument over rights and moving it where it belongs—toward structuring a set of policies that protects gun owners’ rights and lowers the negative costs that gun ownership imposes on the rest of society. Our current system of firearms regulation fails to address the problem of guns stolen from law-abiding gun owners, which are a significant source of black-market weapons. Tax incentives can nudge individuals toward safer behaviors and raise the cost of risky behaviors, such as stockpiling guns and ammunition and failing to adequately secure weapons.

Taxation offers another advantage: It might overcome some of the fear of gun confiscation. As the enormous difficulty that Democrats have encountered in obtaining President Donald Trump’s tax returns demonstrates, tax collectors actually guard such information jealously. Finally, rewarding responsible gun owners for doing what most already do as a matter of routine, with some not inconsiderable tax deductions for engaging in safe gun practices, might help the sting of such a policy start to disappear.

One of the many dysfunctional aspects of our modern gun debate is that we have framed the issue exclusively in terms of rights. Thinking of gun ownership in this way is neither hardwired into our constitutional system nor rooted in founding-era practices. The first militia act, which required those eligible to serve in the militia to purchase their own firearms, was in essence a tax. It transferred part of the cost of public defense to individual households. And the individual states and the new federal government were decidedly not neutral about the types of firearms Americans needed to meet their militia obligation. The problem was not that Americans did not own firearms—levels of gun ownership in America were much higher than in England—but that most Americans did not want military-style weapons. Such guns were relatively heavy, and not especially suited to shooting the critters that ate their crops or to hunting birds. Neither was the bayonet, a standard fixture necessary for military muskets, much use for farmers who wanted to have turkey for dinner.

Arguments over the Second Amendment’s meaning too often ignore a simple fact: The goal of the right to keep and bear arms is to safeguard the security of a free state. Today’s gun policies are making most Americans less, not more, secure. Instead of simply extolling the virtues of the Second Amendment, we should take some of our cues from the policies the founding generation used, including taxation. We need to understand how the Second Amendment fit into a society that valued peace as a vital precondition for the exercise of liberty. At the very minimum, considering taxation as a tool of gun policy should spur us to think more creatively about how to solve our contemporary society’s problem with firearms. Taxation offers a more flexible set of tools to achieve a goal all Americans seek: lowering the costs of gun violence to Americans.

Saul Cornell is the Paul and Diane Guenther Chair in American History at Fordham University.

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