How Raising Taxes on Guns Could Reduce Violence
Policy + Politics

How Raising Taxes on Guns Could Reduce Violence

REUTERS/Jeff Mitchell

In the wake of the Newtown, Conn., elementary school shooting, President Obama pledged to bring about serious change in order to prevent similar tragedies. On January 16, he made his first big move, introducing four legislative proposals and 23 executive actions all aimed at tightening gun control and stopping gun violence in the U.S.

These proposals included banning the sale and production of assault weapons and magazines with more than ten rounds, as well as closing loopholes regarding background checks. Additionally, the president proposed banning armor-piercing bullets, and getting tougher on “straw purchasers”–people who pass background checks on behalf of criminals, so they can obtain guns.

But a study conducted by the Department of Justice showed that the 1994 assault weapons ban failed to reduce the number of victims per gun murder incident, and local and state handgun bans have also been ineffective. So what would work better?

Taxing guns and treating gun violence like a public health issue, according to three Harvard University public-health researchers.

In January, the authors (Dariush Mozaffarian, M.D., Dr.P.H; David Hemenway, Ph.D.; and David S. Ludwig, M.D., Ph.D.) published a paper in the Journal of American Medical Association, “Curbing Gun Violence: Lessons From Public Health Successes,” in which they compared gun violence to other public health issues, like motor vehicle safety, tobacco and unintentional poisoning.

Aside from being more effective, taxes may also be an easier sell to Congress: Marco Rubio, the Republican senator from Florida, said, “Nothing the president is proposing would have stopped the massacre at Sandy Hook … President Obama is targeting the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens instead of seriously addressing the real underlying causes of such violence.”

Even the president has expressed doubts that the proposed legislation will pass in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, especially given that the National Rifle Association (NRA) spent $20 million in the past election cycle on supporting legislators who would vote on behalf of gun rights.

We spoke with Dr. Hemenway to find out how raising taxes on guns and ammunition, exerting pressure on gun manufacturers to make necessary safety changes and changing social norms could go a long way toward effectively stopping gun violence—without taking away the right to bear arms.

How Taxing Guns Could Help Society
“We tax items with negative externalities,” says Dr. Hemenway, referring to how a product’s price may not reflect its cost to society. With cigarettes, the externalities include higher health-care costs, both for the smoker and for the people exposed to secondhand smoke. “Non-gun owners are bearing the costs of gun ownership, as seen in Sandy Hook, where so many people lost their lives due to one gun owner.”

Taxing a behavior or item to account for its negative externalities can serve multiple purposes. In the case of tobacco, every 10 percent increase in the price of cigarettes due to increased taxation actually reduced the overall number of smokers by 3 percent to 5 percent. Additionally, the money raised by taxing tobacco was used to help educate consumers about the dangers of smoking, perform related research and fund the treatment of tobacco-related injuries, says Dr. Hemenway, adding that the funds raised by taxing guns and ammunition could be used for preventative measures and to help victims of gun violence.

Of course, the comparison between tobacco and guns has its limitations, especially in the eyes of those who view the right to gun ownership as a constitutionally protected right. Dave Workman, a senior editor for the publication produced by the Second Amendment Foundation, told “The big issue here is a tax like that penalizes law-abiding gun owners for exercising a constitutionally protected civil right. That certainly differs from taxing cigarette smokers because there’s no constitutional right I know of that allows a person to smoke.”

Manufacturer Solutions
Aside from taxation, there are other ways to solve the gun violence issue. One apt comparison that Dr. Hemenway makes is to look at the current number of gun fatalities and injuries as analagous to the number of car accidents that occurred when he was growing up in the 1950s.

“In effect, the attitude from automobile manufacturers was, ‘Cars don’t kill people, people kill people.’” he says. “From a public health perspective, we feel it’s most valuable to ask, ‘What caused the injury?’ And the truth was that people were being lacerated by non-safety glass or the engine would go into the passenger compartment; the cars themselves were not as safe as they could be.”

Of course, says Dr. Hemenway, it was a huge fight with car manufacturers to get safety glass, seatbelts and airbags—as well as improve the conditions of the roads by adding more lights and speed bumps. “And while drivers aren’t any better 60 years later, by improving the environment of cars and roads, fatalities per mile driven have fallen over 90 percent,” he notes.

The overall safety of guns could be improved in a similar manner. Here’s how:

  • Keep Guns From Accidentally Firing. At an American Public Health Association conference a few years ago, a concealed weapon fell to the ground, went off and shot two women, says Dr. Hemenway. One tweak gun manufacturers could make would be to guarantee that guns can’t fire if they’re dropped.
  • Ensure That Guns Are Unloaded When Magazines Are Removed. If no bullets are left in the chamber when magazines are removed, it could prevent deaths tied to kids who play with guns that they think are unloaded.
  • Design Childproof Guns. Accidental poisonings–another public-health issue–were cut by 40 percent, thanks to child-safety medicine bottles. Similarly, guns could be childproofed by necessitating a more complex combination of pressure put on the handle when the trigger is pulled, says Dr. Hemenway.

By making these tweaks, Dr. Hemenway estimates that the number of accidental injuries and fatalities due to guns would decrease significantly—especially in the homes of otherwise-responsible gun owners. While manufacturers might claim that making these changes would precipitate an undue economic burden, money from the taxes could be earmarked to defray the costs of such manufacturing changes.

Sellers Could Also Change Their Ways
It’s also important to get gun dealers on board with responsible behaviors. Part of this involves enabling the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (called the ATF for short) to better regulate the selling of firearms, says Dr. Hemenway, through the following measures:

  • Empower the ATF. The bureau hasn’t had a permanent director for the last six years, has had very little funding and it isn’t allowed to conduct its own sting operations to identify dealers who sell to straw purchasers. Reports have suggested that many of the guns used in crimes are acquired via straw purchasers. By enabling the ATF to conduct sting operations, we could reduce the number of guns that are easily getting into the hands of criminals.
  • Improve Licensing and Registration. In the same way that cars are licensed and registered to owners, better licensing and registration efforts would help make sure that guns are being used responsibly by purchasers–and not being sold off to criminals, suggests Dr. Hemenway.
  • Train Gun Dealership Employees. Such employees should be trained to help identify straw purchasers and suicidal individuals. By asking the right types of questions, and identifying the necessary authorities, dealership employees could help save lives and prevent guns from getting resold to criminals.

Taking a Closer Look at America’s Gun Culture
In addition to taxation and changing the business of manufacturing and selling guns, it’s also important to examine the culture of gun ownership in the U.S.

“It used to be that it was considered totally fine to go out, have a few drinks and drive home,” says Dr. Hemenway–even though there were laws on the books against drinking and driving. But thanks in part to campaigns by MADD and SADD, drunk driving fatalities have significantly decreased. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the percentage of weekend nighttime drivers with blood-alcohol content greater than the legal limit has fallen from over five percentage points between 1973 and 2007.

In the case of gun violence, the corollary would be to change the conversation around gun ownership. In the same way that you would never let your child be driven by someone under the influence, says Dr. Hemenway, you should feel confident that all of the houses that your child visits follow proper gun storage procedures. Creating a more proactive culture around ownership would go far to prevent guns from getting into the wrong hands–and more effectively change the landscape regarding gun violence.

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