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Why and How States Should Tax Weapons That Massacre Civilians

Mass shootings are costing governments, schools and families billions. Those who sell, buy and harbor AR-15-style firearms and other pseudo-military killing machines should bear the financial burden.

AR-15-style rifles on display.
AR-15-style rifles on display. More than 20 million of these military-style assault weapons are in circulation in the U.S.
(Patrick Fallon/ZUMA Wire/TNS)
As we’ve seen time and again, the national shock and mourning for the victims of one horrific mass slaughter after another is fading away. Once again, we’ve watched and begun to move on from the endless coverage of grieving families, friends and neighbors. Once again, politicians express ritual sorrow and gnash their teeth about gun safety and mental health. Once again, polls show overwhelming supermajority public support for sensible and sane gun laws to address an obvious problem: simply stated, that the pseudo-military semiautomatic weapons so often used to massacre civilians do not belong in the hands of anybody other than our military and law enforcement organizations.

Congress won’t ban civilians from having these weapons in today’s politically charged, divisive climate. But the Tenth Amendment can stand up to the Second — we can tax them. If courts keep overturning state-level assault-weapon bans, then taxation is the next-best strategy in states where the people hold more power than the gun lobby. America urgently needs a multistate assault-weapons tax. Here’s why:

The financial costs imposed by crackpots and crooks who acquire AR-15-style rifles and other assault weapons and use them to kill civilians are immense. Not only do we spend billions nationally to arm, train and deploy our law enforcement agencies, and now to patrol our public schools, but the financial cost of lost livelihoods is measured in millions per person, even if one only uses the grim math of wrongful-death actuaries. In the case of children, it’s an entire lifetime of economic productivity, and that of course is only one dimension of the damages that families suffer.

Yet the producers, purveyors, buyers and users of the military-style assault weapons now in circulation in the U.S. — more than 20 million, and that accounts only for AR-15s and their knockoff competitors — pay almost nothing for their right to traffic in devices that should be the monopoly of state, local and federal authorities.

No, I’m not talking about traditional hunting rifles and shotguns. Nor about pistols people want keep at their bedside in case a home invader intrudes. Nor the stand-your-ground self-defense protection some think they need in case the crazies from the opposite side of the political spectrum take over the government and try to impose authoritarian rule. Far be it from me to deprive red-blooded gun fans of their Second Amendment rights, no matter how farfetched and dystopian those may have become. I’m focused here only on the weaponry that mimics those that armies use, that SWAT forces need to take down the lunatics and the gangs, that federal agents need to fight fire with fire when evil forces deploy their illegal arms — the machines that can rapidly kill children and other innocents by the dozens.

Who Should Pay

My case is not premised on partisan politics; it is simply an economic argument: Those who impose costs (what economists call externalities) on everybody else should pay for them whenever possible. Just as we should tax polluters who emit carbon into the sky, we need to tax the entire distribution chain for military-style arms sold to civilians.

As to how: Sensible taxation would begin with Congress, because it alone has the constitutional power to control interstate commerce. But don’t look for such a federal tax from today’s hyper-partisan Congress, at least as long as the Senate filibuster rule prevails. Yet I suspect that a commerce clause lawsuit would be filed against any state that tried to directly tax gun manufacturers who ship across state lines.

But state legislatures do have the authority to impose taxes on activities within their jurisdictions, which can include the on-premises sale of military-style armaments, the display and conveyance of such weapons at gun shows, and the purchase of assault weaponry, along with an annual excise tax on harboring the same. And these should not be trivial taxes. From my vantage point, the combined cost of buying an AR-15 or other assault weapon should be upwards from $7,000, once all the taxes are tallied, and perhaps another $3,000 per year for lawful possession. High-capacity magazines should be taxed similarly, as they have only one purpose: massacres. If you think about the societal losers who’ve become mass murderers, many of them would never have been able to buy and load an AR-15 at this cost.

A multistate assault-weapons tax would thus pose a deterrent to ownership, but also provide a source of funding to offset the harm these devices inflict. Even at $3,000 a year, such a tax could theoretically raise $60 billion annually nationwide if all states were to sign on — which of course they won’t. But even a realistic fraction of that could go a long way.

Who Should Benefit

As to the uses of this unique tax revenue, the states could first buy back the weaponry that owners decide to turn in, at cost, rather than pay the tax. That removes the argument that this plan is confiscatory. Of the remaining revenue, perhaps half might be distributed by legislatures to their states’ law enforcement agencies and school districts that are now obligated to prepare themselves for armed attacks on civilians. The other half could go into an interstate trust fund for the benefit of victims of these assaults.

A multistate assault-weapons tax law can be crafted to provide for annual distribution of the participating and cooperating states’ revenues to the victims from those states, and those states only. Innocents who are permanently disabled, the parents of deceased children and the estates of adult victims would share equally from this trust fund. Politicians in anti-tax, gun-crazy states who refuse to join the multistate effort can explain to their constituencies why their own mass-shooting victims and their families are ineligible for this relief, and why local taxpayers are burdened with the extraordinary costs of law enforcement and social services that their state’s subservience to the gun lobby is costing everybody.

Yes, I know all about “when only outlaws have guns …,” and the criminal element will keep these weapons no matter what laws we pass — it’s what criminals do. And even with this ultra-stiff tax, there will still be more guns than people in this country. But none of us justifiably need an AR-15 with massacre magazines. Just remember that Al Capone went to jail for tax evasion.

Governing’s opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing’s editors or management.
Girard Miller is the finance columnist for Governing. He can be reached at
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