Let’s Start Taxing Guns Now

The law, lawyers, and the court.
Dec. 21 2012 1:41 PM

Let’s Tax Guns

Make it more expensive to build an arsenal.

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A Glock pistol with a 17-round magazine

Joe Raedle

Read more on Slate about gun control.

In its press conference today, the National Rifle Association said the way to prevent school shootings is to offer armed guards to every school. Right. Back here on Earth, there are plenty of tools at the government’s disposal for controlling guns without putting them in schools—or running into constitutional trouble with the Second Amendment. And one of them is the federal tax code.

The federal taxing power has been consistently upheld by the Supreme Court as constitutional and has been used broadly as a means of changing social policy and individual choices. Everyone, for instance, has the freedom to be single, remain childless, not own a home, refuse to make charitable donations, not save for retirement, smoke cigarettes, and have energy-inefficient windows, among other things—but they pay a price, in the form of more taxes, for each of them. Most recently, the government has made the choice to remain without health insurance a costly one as a way to encourage citizens to obtain coverage. By making some choices more expensive than others, the federal government creates incentives for certain kinds of behavior.

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A federal excise tax on guns could change the social landscape. It would work like this: Everyone who can pass a background check to own a firearm would be entitled to purchase one weapon, tax-free. This would leave our right to own a weapon for self-defense unencumbered and would therefore be constitutional under the Second Amendment. After that, the government would levy an excise tax on each additional weapon owned. The amount of the tax would increase as the number of weapons owned increased. The tax wouldn’t stop anyone from legally owning as many guns as they like, but it would make the choice to accumulate personal arsenals – like the one owned by Nancy Lanza in Sandy Hook –much more expensive, and therefore less prevalent. Decreasing the number of arsenals makes everyone safer by reducing the likelihood of weapons being taken by people who aren’t authorized to use them, as Nancy Lanza’s were by her son before he drove to Sandy Hook Elementary and killed 26 people.

The government could also reduce or waive the tax for weapons that have certain safety features. These might include “micro-stamping” technology, which uses a laser to imprint the make, model, and serial number onto the firing pin of a weapon, making it immediately traceable to its registered owner. Another might be “smart guns” with biometric trigger locks, which would allow only the registered owner of a gun to fire it. Gun manufacturers have historically resisted implementing these existing technologies because they don’t have to, and because adding them increases their cost of production. But if consumers demanded these features as a way to avoid taxes, we could see a shift in the kind of weapons produced and sold.

Of course, some people may try to avoid taxes by buying guns on the black market. But they’d risk the IRS coming after them for tax evasion, which is relatively easy to prove (Al Capone, anyone?) and carries civil and criminal penalties. Tax evasion has been law enforcement’s tool for combating organized crime and the drug trade. Extending its reach to unregulated guns could prove very effective: After all, you can’t hide your weapons in a Swiss bank account.

We need many solutions to America’s gun problem—meaningful change needs to tackle the problem from all angles, and those include the tax incentives the government creates to influence individual choices. The American answer to the question “What sound does a gun make?” has been “Rat-a-tat-tat,” or more grandly, “The sound of freedom.” We can use the tax code to add: “Cha-ching.”

Asha Rangappa is the dean of admissions at Yale Law School.

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