Bite The Bullet

Editorial Notebook

A bill currently being proposed in the California legislature by state Sen. Don Perata would lead to a referendum in November on levying a five cent tax on every bullet sold. This new tax would help pay for the trauma centers which deal directly with the carnage caused by gun violence, not only decreasing the amount of ammunition sold but also making gun owners pay directly for the damage that they inflict on society.

Between 1993 and 1998, approximately 115,000 firearm-related injuries occurred annually in the United States. Of these, approximately 30 percent resulted in death. This violence would be unacceptable under any circumstances, but it is even more calamitous as it disproportionately affects the young. The rate of firearms homicide among males aged 20 to 24—30.3 per 100,000—is more than five times higher than the firearms homicide rate for all Americans. Gun violence is the leading cause of death for African-American males aged 15 to 24.

This unacceptably high level of gun violence affects more than those directly touched by the bloodshed. The entire nation is, in fact, paying for the devastation caused by gun-toting criminals. Gun violence currently imposes an annual healthcare cost of $4-5.3 billion, most of which is paid by private health insurance subscribers and taxpayers. There is no reason why innocent Americans should have to mop up after the violence of others when its costs can be directly subsidized by those that purchase guns.

Most indirect taxation is based on the economic principle that the person who imposes the negative externality on society is responsible for reimbursing the rest of the population. For instance, cars and trucks impose the negative externality of pollution, and thus gasoline is taxed to help compensate society for the environmental damage. The same rationale is applied to cigarettes, where taxes of up to 100 percent—amounting to several dollars per pack—help pay for treatment and anti-smoking education. The consumption of bullets imposes the negative externality of potential injury and death as well as increased healthcare expenses. Those who purchase bullets should, therefore, be taxed to help pay for these costs.

A mere five cent tax on every bullet sold would raise an estimated $400 million per year for California alone. This would not completely cover the medical cost of gun violence but would definitely go a long way toward reducing the burden on society and keeping rocketing healthcare insurance premiums from rising further.

Some critics may argue that increasing the price of ammunition infringes on Americans’ Second Amendment right to carry and bear arms. But the only consumers whom this tax will really affect economically will be those who are buying bullets in the thousands (and they will only have to pay $50 dollars extra on every 1,000 bullets purchased). Although the constitution does protect the right of an individual to bear arms—and therefore to buy ammunition in limited quantities—there are no constitutional barriers to putting a tax on ammunition purchases.

“Frankly, I’m a little sick and tired of being sent the bill for violence and then being criticized for the high cost of health care,” notes Robert McAfee, an American Medical Association trustee. This proposed tax would make those buying ammunition pay back some of the costs they impose on society without infringing on constitutional rights. To reduce the phenomenal impact of gun violence on American society, the California tax should serve as a model for the rest of the country.

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