Tax Analysts Blog

Taxing Guns Is Just Wrong

Posted on Jan 6, 2016

A Washington state appellate court recently upheld Seattle’s excise tax on firearms and ammunition. Last August the city imposed a $25 tax on gun sales and an ammunition tax of 5 cents per round, and 2 cents per round for .22 caliber and smaller rounds. It was challenged as unconstitutional. Unfortunately, the initial challenge failed.

I have written a lot about this issue. Excise taxes are an inappropriate way to deal with gun violence. The only justification for an excise tax is to compensate society for the costs of using a product that are not borne by the marketplace. But the externalities associated with the ownership of firearms are virtually nonexistent. The vast majority of guns owned legally in the United States (some say as high as 99 percent) will never be used in a violent action. There are simply no externalities associated with most gun purchases. Smoking and pollution have decidedly visible externalities. But if a law-abiding citizen purchases a pistol or rifle and keeps it in a safe, what are the societal costs of that purchase and ownership?

Some academic studies have tried to assign costs from gun violence to all gun owners. They assert that my ownership of a pistol creates a cost to society that would justify a tax. But if my pistol is never used in a crime or suicide, how could that be true?

So why impose a tax? It is clear that most gun tax proposals, like those in Seattle, are political statements. Some politicians just don’t like guns. And some politicians feel the need to do something about gun violence. The fact is that a gun tax will have no effect on gun violence. Law-abiding citizens will pay the tax (or shop somewhere that doesn’t have one). And those committed to violence will not be deterred.

Cook County, Illinois, for example, has the most gun violence in the nation. It also has a gun tax. That tax is being challenged in court. But it has existed since 2012. The law’s big effects have been that gun stores have left the county and that law-abiding citizens have been prevented from purchasing a firearm. That may be what some politicians wanted all along. But it has had no effect on gun violence.

That isn’t to say gun violence does not impose a cost on society. It does. And guns are involved in horrible tragedies. But imposing a tax on those who don’t perpetuate that violence is neither fair nor effective.


Read Comments (3)

edmund dantesJan 6, 2016

Cogent and rational analysis.
Unfortunately, rationality left the tax building decades ago. You are the
Sisyphus of tax observers.

bob kammanJan 6, 2016

How do you propose financing background checks and prosecution of illegal
firearms transactions? I have to read a British newspaper (the Guardian) to
learn that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms "lacks the resources
needed to adequately track the outcomes of thousands of investigations
involving improperly purchased firearms despite such cases being a 'top

As I understand it, there is already an excise tax on buying a gun, for those
who have to pay $14 for the federal background check. Various cities and local
governments may charge much more than that, or for concealed-carry permits.
It's less expensive to buy or own a gun in Seattle than in many other places
around the country, including the Deep Red South.

Seattle charges $30 a year to license a dog, goat or pot-bellied pig. Most pet
owners are responsible, so why should they bear the burden of animal control?
Maybe that's the subject of the next column.

David Cay JohnstonJan 11, 2016

So what would you think of such a tax only on semi-automatic weapons and on the
automatic weapons that can be legally purchased only by a trust or corporation?

If narrowed to these military-type weapons -- whose only purpose is mass
killing -- would a very high excise tax, in line with the known effects of the
very high tobacco taxes of recent times, make sense?

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