Bullet Tax Proposal Is New Twist in Gun-Control Debate

By: - December 26, 2012 12:00 am

The Newtown, Connecticut school shooting has reactivated many familiar gun-control measures at both the state and federal level, from assault weapons bans to universal background checks for gun purchasers. But it’s also inspiring some new or mostly new ideas, including one in Connecticut: a hefty tax on bullets.

The Hartford Courantreported last week that two Democratic legislators were proposing a new 50 percent tax on bullets as part of a broader gun-control bill. The Connecticut legislation is one sign that the gun-control debate that the shootings will prompt next year in statehouses around the country could morph into an ammunition-control debate, too.

The idea of a bullet tax isn’t totally original. In 1993, U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York proposed a 10,000 percent tax on one especially lethal type of bullet. Still, when Cook County, Illinois was considering a five-cent-per-bullet tax this fall, the Wall Street Journal reported that no state or local government had adopted one. Facing political resistance, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle ultimately dropped the bullet tax proposal and instead imposed a new tax on gun purchases.

The Connecticut bill isn’t the only proposal since the Newtown shooting to focus on bullets. Three Democratic legislators in Wisconsin have proposed banning hollow-point bullets, which cause more damage on impact than regular bullets. City officials in San Francisco have proposed banning them, too.

After the shooting, Marc Ambinder of The Week laid out the case for focusing on bullet control instead of gun control. “The 300 million guns that are in private hands aren’t going away,” Ambinder wrote. In contrast, he argued, ammunition is easier to restrict. “Guns are forever, but ammo degrades, even if stored in precisely proper conditions and humidors that criminals don’t often have.”

But those arguments aren’t likely to win over gun-rights advocates. In objecting to the Cook County proposal, Wayne LaPierre, chief executive of the National Rifle Association, told the Journal that “the law-abiding people are the only people who will pay,” while criminals would get their bullets elsewhere.

Already, some gun groups in Connecticut are making their opposition known. “We should be looking for solutions to the problems, not these asinine ideas,” Robert Crook of the Connecticut Sportsmen’s Alliance told the Connecticut Mirror. “I don’t think ammunition is a health hazard. We use it in hunting. We use it in target shooting. I don’t know how you can call it a health hazard, unless it’s used in something like this Newtown shooting.”

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Josh Goodman

Josh Goodman helps lead research on fiscal management and place-based economic development programs as part of Pew’s state fiscal health project. Goodman has served as a primary author for Pew studies that examine how states should evaluate tax incentives and maintain budget discipline when implementing those incentives.