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Commentary on Elizabeth Warren's Proposed Gun Excise Tax Increase

Write-Off: The Tax Blog

Elizabeth Warren has a plan for everything. I have opined on one before. In the wake of yet another terrible and horrific mass shooting, Senator Warren has yet another plan: a proposed increase in the excise tax on firearms and ammunition. There are also other parts to the plan, but, I ignore all but the tax piece.

Some thoughts:

  1. I feel confident that such a tax would not affect mass shootings, which seems to be the implicit motivation for this policy (the Warren plan starts out by listing cities with recent mass shootings).  There is no conclusive academic evidence on the tax sensitivities of mass shooters, but my guess is that increased dollar cost would not dissuade many. Let’s look at the numbers.  Some of the recent shootings were carried out by one specific firearm, a semi-automatic 5.56x45mm rifle. This particular firearm is about $600. Warren proposes increasing the excise tax from 11% to 30% on rifles.  So, while previously the tax would have been in the area of $60 (rounding, and the tax is already partially embedded in the price of the firearm, as this is a tax remitted by the manufacturer), Warren would increase the tax to around $180.  That is a very large percentage increase.  But it seems reasonable that the deranged individuals who commit such horrible acts, who often end up killing themselves in the process, could likely come up with the money. My perception is that money, at least in these amounts, will create no barrier for these people.
  2. But, Warren’s stated goal is not to stop mass shootings, but to decrease shooting deaths by 80% overall, a very worthy goal.  The majority of shooting deaths are self-inflicted—suicides represent the largest piece of the shooting deaths tragedy.  Would a more gun taxes prevent suicides?  It might help. Many suicides are not long-drawn out premeditated affairs, which is why Warren supports longer waiting periods for firearms purchases.  If a gun is available, it might be used.  If not, a less fatal method may be tried, or no attempt may be made.  So, the question is, would increasing the cost of guns decrease (or arrest the increase) the number of guns out there? Even more specifically, will it affect how many people own guns, not the total number of guns, as if you are contemplating suicide, it won’t matter if you have five guns, or one? There may be people considering a first time gun purchase that would be dissuaded by a higher price.  If fewer people have guns, it may reduce gun suicides.
  3. However, one of the many elephants in the room is that the fact that there are about 400 million guns in the US already, so any policy that affects only the flow of firearms, and not the stock, may have a very, very minimal impact on total gun ownership.  Further, if the value of existing guns goes up, it may provide some incentive for existing gun owners to sell some of their guns. If the value of an asset you own increases in price thanks to Warren’s plan, it might be the right time to sell it.  The average gun owner has over 8 guns.  Given a higher market value for those guns, there may be more incentive to sell them to others, potentially those that currently own no firearms.
  4. For the tax to have any effect on firearm deaths, some of the incidence will have to be borne by gun owners. It likely is.
  5. The Warren plan also represents a dramatic change in what these excise taxes on firearms and ammunition can be used for, as their use if currently governed by the Pittman-Robertson Act, as amended by the Wildlife and Sports Fish Restoration Programs Improvement Act. I don’t know that I have a strong opinion on that, but it is a big shift.
  6. I am struggling to see how increasing taxes on ammunition might affect shooting deaths, other than using the revenue from the tax to somehow implement some program that might have an effect.  But, I don’t see that increasing the price, even dramatically, on a 12 dollar box of ammunition, would change the calculus of whether to buy ammunition to commit a tragic act. And, most gun owners already own some ammunition for the guns they own. It takes very few rounds of ammunition to horribly destroy lives (really just one round). A cost increase on ammunition, rather, would more likely affect the amount of total shooting that happens, decreasing the amount of practice current gun owners have with their firearms.  If we are going to allow guns at all, I would just as soon have their owners have plenty of practice using them.
  7. To be clear, none of this commentary is about gun control generally. Rather, it is a post about the efficacy of using taxes as an instrument to achieve gun control. This a blog about taxes. I will let others figure out gun control generally.

These thoughts, of course, are my own, and not those of UNC, the Tax Center, etc.

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