The nation is debating what to do about assault-style weapons, what gun-rights advocates like to call modern sporting rifles. Gun-rights champions argue that these weapons are in common use, and hence protected by the Second Amendment. Gun-control supporters respond that these weapons have no place on our streets and ought to be banned. But there’s a better solution, and one that avoids the constitutional objections typically raised by gun-rights advocates. Rather than banning these weapons, the time has come to tax them.
Taxation offers one of the most promising and underutilized tools to change the calculus of gun violence in America. Few Americans realize that guns and ammunition are already taxed to pay for conservation efforts. Gun owners have happily tolerated federal taxes for years to support this worthwhile public-policy goal. Surely even the most die-hard gun-rights supporter could not argue that, although it is constitutional to tax weapons and ammo to protect animals, it is not constitutional to tax them to protect people.
Taxation sidesteps entirely the constitutional qualms some have over assault-weapons bans. It also addresses the criticism often voiced that singling out assault weapons is irrational because it would leave hunting rifles that have many of the same features on the streets. One of the problems that gun bans pose is that that gun makers simply modify their weapons to make them street-legal. Moreover, gun bans do not address the problem posed by guns already in private possession. Rather than requiring an expensive buyback program, gun taxation would use a market-based strategy to reduce the number of guns in circulation by effectively raising the price of ownership. The additional revenue generated by this policy could be used to fund research on violence reduction and support existing programs to help local communities deal with the ravages of gun violence.