Ben Werner

Ammo Tax: Would a Usage Tax Change Firearm Use?

In the wake of yet another gun-related tragedy, Ben Werner imagines how an ammo tax could curb violence, change behavior, and benefit our nation. 

 

Could a market approach, such as an ammunition tax, accomplish what weapon bans and regulations have so far failed to do—curb the U.S. rate of gun violence?

Watching the events unfold in Orlando—it was an otherwise pleasant mid-afternoon where I live in Korea—I couldn’t help but wonder if there’s a different way to address gun violence.

I’m tired of the binary conversation pitting bans versus rights. Nothing is solved and the overall fear level just increases. Guns are a part of American culture. This won’t change. So why not try something new, like taking the national sales tax idea that seems popular among many right-leaning politicians and apply this idea to ammunition? Perhaps a bit whimsical, I thought, but make bullets more expensive and maybe fewer will be fired.

A week ago, I was just spit-balling ideas while doing the dishes and didn’t realize ammo taxes were real. Seattle just won a court case allowing it to institute such a tax, and Cook County, Illinois, home to Chicago, already has an ammo tax on the books.

Okay, these cities will offer only limited results. And of course both municipalities are fending off lawsuits from the usual parties claiming to protect Second Amendment rights. For now, at least, the courts appear to side with the municipalities, finding an ammo tax doesn’t infringe on gun ownership rights, it just raises money for broad purposes; kind of like how the federal gasoline tax pays for highway and bridge construction, but doesn’t limit car ownership.

But before debating the value of a small sample size or the constitutional validity of such taxes, I wondered if there’s a quantifiable correlation between user fees and user behavior on a national scale.

And then it hit me. Washing the dishes that Sunday night, still sickened by yet another mass shooting, separating our recyclable material, placing food waste into a special and seemingly unique-to-Korea food waste dryer, I thought Korea offers an example of a usage tax that changed human behavior.

It’s not that Korea has an ammo tax. This is a place where gun violence is so low it hardly registers—an estimated 0.08 fatalities per 100,000 citizens, including suicides, according to statistics gathered over multiple years around 2012 by the United Nations. The U.S. is about 10.5 fatalities per 100,000 citizens in 2014.

But Korea’s national recycling rate is the envy of the industrialized world. Public altruism and laws requiring recycling didn’t turn the public green. Nope, the recycling fanaticism was amazingly simple to spur—a trash tax.

Instead of just passing laws requiring recycling, the nation in the early 1990s adopted a market approach. Household and small business garbage is only collected if placed in official government trash bags, purchased from grocery or convenience stores, with prices set by municipalities. The more garbage created, the more money spent buying trash bags. And they’re not cheap. Meanwhile, properly sorted recyclable material is collected free of charge—the sale of trash bags covers the cost of all waste collection.

The system isn’t perfect. Illegal dumping remains an issue and good luck finding a trashcan in public to toss that Venti Americano you got on the go. But the overall results are telling. In 1994, when the program started, each resident generated 1.3 kilograms of waste per day, according to the Republic of Korea Ministry of Environment. A decade later, each person created 1.03 kilograms of waste per day, according to a Korea Ministry of Environment 2006 Environmental Policy Bulletin about the Volume Based Waste Fee.

“The result showed that the higher the price of the bag, less waste is generated and, in reverse, more recyclable waste is generated,” the report stated.

Perhaps more significant, the ministry found bag fees changed consumer and producer behavior. As the public grew more conscious of waste creation, manufacturers responded by creating more environmentally-friendly products and packaging. “The Volume Based Waste Fee program is an excellent example of a market-based environmental policy.”

The program has since been tweaked to encourage food composting. In 1994, Korea recycled a mere 9.8 percent of food waste. The bag fees helped, but real change occurred recently when landfills stopped accepting food waste and when households and small businesses were taxed based on the weight of their food waste garbage.

Today, an estimated 95 percent of food waste is recycled as compost. Yes, the more food I just toss in the garbage, the more money I pay for garbage collection. Only Styrofoam and diapers go in our garbage; everything else is recycled or composted.

So if a trash tax can encourage a nation to tediously sort recyclables, scrape leftovers into special containers, rethink product packaging, and even encourage folks to walk around with empty coffee cups until proper bins are located, then maybe, just maybe, a similar market-based ammunition policy could shift how firearms are used in the U.S.

For instance, a national ammunition tax could be set at a price point to discourage purchasing vast quantities of rounds, but could include exemptions for legal firearm use. Money raised could pay for a variety of needs, such as improving mental health screening and increasing counterterrorism resources.

And before the same usual groups start pooh-poohing new regulations and taxes, it would be nice if they considered possible exemptions to make this system palatable. For instance, ammunition purchased from hunting lodges, registered hunting guides, and used at registered shooting ranges could be exempt. Vendors could even be part of the prevention equation by reporting unusually large ammunition purchases, similar to the bank reporting requirement with unusually large offshore money transfers to cut down on money laundering.

Will an ammo tax eliminate gun violence? Nope. Will there be loopholes, such as folks making their own ammo? Sure. Will there be complaints about infringing on rights? There always are. Do I think an ammo tax will become more than an academic topic? No, not really. But it’s an idea and as a nation we need to consider different strategies. Simply holding out hope for a single silver bullet solution to stopping mass shootings will leave us dealing with the aftermath of a yet another regular bullet-inflicted massacre.

 

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Ben Werner

Ben Werner is a writer currently living in Busan, South Korea, where he, his wife, and three small children made the decision to root for the Lotte Giants, perennial cellar dwellers of the Korean Baseball Organization. Stateside, the family pulls for the Washington Nationals. Along with being a freelance writer for newspapers and magazines, Ben has previously been a staff writer covering education and publicly traded companies for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va., The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C., Savannah Morning News in Savannah, Ga., and Baltimore Business Journal. He earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Maryland and a master’s degree from New York University.

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