Michael Wolraich's picture

    Better Gun Control

    Last February, I wrote what columnists like to call a "think piece" about an alternative approach to gun control (with the implication that most punditry does not involve thinking).

    My proposal was to tax gun manufacturers and retailers based on the lethality of their merchandise, as measured by crime statistics. The hope was to incentivize companies to create their own safeguards against misuse, in essence to financially discourage them from making weapons that appeal to criminals and from selling to customers who are likely to use the guns for crime.

    I am no expert in gun legislation or tax law. My post was just an amateurish attempt to think about gun crime in a creative way. The responses ranged from "great idea" to "frankly ridiculous."

    But I'm happy to announce that I'm not alone. The New York Times just published a column by two law professors who advocate a similar approach:

    Since safer guns would mean fewer compensable injuries or deaths, the tax should be adjustable, rising when injuries and deaths increase, and falling when they decrease. The tax rate could also be adjusted to reflect the relative lethality of guns. Those guns that are most often used to kill or maim the largest number of people could be taxed at a higher rate, while guns used primarily for hunting or sport that are much less often involved in fatalities or injuries would be taxed at a lower rate.

    Read the article here: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/24/opinion/make-gun-companies-pay-blood-money.html

    There ares two significant difference between the two proposals. First, my proposal would address retailers as well as manufacturers to discourage them from selling to potential criminals and from stocking lethal guns.

    Second, the Times proposal is a straightforward sales tax. It would encourage the industry as a whole to build safer weapons but would not penalize specific companies that refused to make their guns suffer.

    My proposal taxes companies based on the criminal use of their merchandise. If a company did not sell a single weapon that was used for crime, it would pay no tax. A company that sold many weapons to criminals would pay a very steep tax. Though such a tax is more unusual, the incentives would be more effective because it would directly discourage individual companies from building and selling lethal weaponry rather than the the industry as a whole.

    Related, the Times printed the column back-to-back with another alternative approach that would let courts address the issue rather than the executive branch. If gun manufacturers were stripped of their immunity from civil suits--granted by a Congress in 2005--victims could sue manufacturers for damages resulting from gun crimes and accidents. The threat of lawsuits might similarly incentivize gun manufacturers and retailers to make and sell safer weapons and to avoid selling to risky customers.

    Michael Wolraich is the author of Blowing Smoke (Da Capo, 2010)



    And, in the same op-ed page, Robert Morgenthau takes the lawyer's approach and tries to use civil liability as a sort of tax on gun manufacturers.  I'd say this further validates your idea which I darned well better have agreed with at the time.

    I'm fonder of Morgenthau's proposal. Civil liability is an excellent option, and leaves the state out of it. It's also the only practical basis for a gun-insurance model.

    Selling guns would be very different if the seller had to think about what the buyer would do with the gun. You don't sell some kid hundreds of rounds of ammunition over the internet if you could be sued for how he uses them.

    I think the insurance model makes perfect sense.

    I guess that I have an inherent reservation about tort. When you add in the legal costs and fraud, it's an expensive and inefficient way to achieve the same disincentive. I agree that it would serve a similar function, so I'll take it; I would just prefer a tax.

    If you tax guns, only tax evaders will have guns.

    Ha. There are 114 gun manufacturers in the United States. I think the IRS is up to the task.

    I would guess that what will happen with either taxing or insuring firearms, is that buying/owning the cheaper models will become too expensive to be practical. Why buy a Raven if it costs as much as a Ruger?

    Drug dealers will still buy pretty guns, but less profitable criminals will have to turn to secondhand or stolen or fenced firearms made by better manufacturers. Then the better manufacturer's models will also be taxed/insured at a higher rate, and purchasing any firearm will cost that much more.

    So eventually owning firearms will be a rich man's game. And when we start turning into zombies, only the rich will survive.

    Inner city violence between young males is one of the largest and most tragic sources of gun homicide. Except for a few drug kingpins, these kids certainly aren't rich. If fewer of them can afford guns, that in itself would go a long way towards reducing gun violence.

    PS Guns don't work against zombies

    Well, guns make their way into the poorest hands in the world, so I won't hold my breath.

    I haven't seen them all, but in many films, guns do work against zombies, though fire is better. In Shaun of the Dead, you could dispatch them with a cricket bat.

    I believe consumers union recommends when on a zombie search and destroy mission that you pack nothing with less stopping power than a desert eagle or a 357 mag minimum. Too bad for me and my puny chief's special

    If the government is the plaintiff, the government can choose not to sue, and will always face political pressure not to.

    If private parties are the plaintiff, they have a right to pursue their case. That's the one advantage I see to tort.

    Dude, I already linked to that. Last paragraph.

    I just caught Huffpo this morning and:


    The substance of this squib:

    There is too much confusion I can find no relief!

    This article is amazing to me.

    If you have no probable cause to stop a person carrying a wmd; then it seems to me that any person, sane or insane or criminal or non-criminal, can carry a wmd.

    I have been for your proposal for decades.

    The scenario has been carried out on several Law & Order presentations (all three of them I believe).

    Products liability and all that including the fine movie with Hackman called Runaway Jury.


    The repubs always underline INDIVIDUAL RESPONSIBILITY but they, along with recent Supreme Court decisions conclude:

    Screw that!

    Oh well.

    Good essay!




    Here's a tax-free firearm design.

    The NYT article proposes a national tax on gun sales for a compensation fund.

    Congress this year had an opportunity to pass a universal free background check for all gun sales, meaning checks at gun shows. It failed.

    And the plan is to ask Congress to pass a national tax on guns.....??? Pollyanna comes to mind, or, what are you smokin'?

    The math: 30,000 gun deaths a year, 17 million gun sales in 2012.

    If passed, a tax of $1 dollar a gun would give a mean compensation of $566 per gun death. 

    ZERO dollars for the not dead.  No disability compensation for gun injuries or gun wounded, no compensation for pain, no coverage for medical bills, no funds for impact on survivors, or property damages. Just $566 if you are killed.

    At $10 gun tax, $5660 per death. Zilch for the rest above. (A tax of $10,000 per gun might begin to meet the cost of gun deaths/injuries, estimated at $174 billion a year) if, of course, there was no drop in the sales of guns.

    The gun tax of course doesn't impact the safety of the 200 million guns already out there which are mostly unsafe, or new ones of buyers who disable the 'safety features'. (A gun is made to kill people you know, so any safety device must allow you to shoot people.)

    Verdict: tax won't happen, won't work or make a difference if it does happen.

    Solution: state by state laws to ensure background checks, restrict killing power/magazines/gun types and MANDATE by law safety devices.  Congress will never do anything.


    I'm more interested in disincentives than compensation. I'm aware that a gun tax or any other substantive gun control measure cannot be achieved in the current Congress, but I believe that gun-control advocates must adopt new substantive long-term strategies and rigorously champion these ideas in election campaigns if they hope to accomplish anything.

    In the old days, "impractical" progressives with big ideas lost plenty of hopeless battles, but with every defeat, they gained they support until they eventually booted their opponents out of Congress and achieved those big ideas. If we reject every idea that cannot pass at the moment, we will continue to slide slowly into the abyss.

    I am all for booting Republicans out of government, then cull through the Democrats for the DINO.

    The new NY laws on guns are tough, and California has some new ideas on requiring a license and maintaining a database on ammunition purchases. You can't pussyfoot around with gun manufacturers.

    The GOP uses the law to de-regulate gun carry and stymie sensible gun laws, the reason is they know the law, not disincentives, rules the land, and use of the law, at state or federal level, is the only route to sane control of guns.

    Don't you find it shocking that for every gun sold in the country, doing the math, there is a $10,000 dollar hit to the economy in death/medical care/work loss from guns nationwide? It's a disgrace.

    I agree, it's a disgrace. And I support alternative approaches that the states are doing.

    I just don't think that we'll ever defeat the NRA legislators by compromising with them to pass whatever measly restrictions they're willing to permit. And I don't think we'll ever have serious gun control until we defeat them.

    I like your idea. I think there is sort of precedent for it. Weren't automakers forced through "incentives" to make their cars safer? States were forced to make their roads safer (lower speed limits) through federal funding "incentives". Corporate polluters have been given "incentives" to get cleaner. 

    I'm not sure I like the idea of selling gun manufacturers and retailers liable for gun crime unlinked to mandatory background checks. Unlike bartenders being held liable for serving alcohol to drunks that go on to kill people with their cars, retailers do not generally witness the state of body and mind of a gun owner immediately prior to a crime, and therefore cannot be expected to use their personal judgment to refuse sale. 

    Would there be a way to exempt premeditated crime from liability lawsuits? People who plan to commit violent crimes are going to find a way, guns or not. It's the so-called crimes of passion that could be prevented, or at least mitigated, by lack of immediate access to a gun. 

    Thanks. I think the treatment of polluters offers an interesting comparison. Though they were charged for clean-up, not compensation, there was an implicit disincentive to create costly messes. With automakers, I think the government mandated specific improvements rather than tying incentives to accident rates, but I could be wrong.

    With respect to retailers, I also thought about the bartender comparison. I suspect that the problem not so much who licensed dealers sell to--they have to do background checks and what more can we ask--but what they sell. So reducing their profits on crime-friendly guns might change what they stock and promote.

    Automakers were forced through federal law to make cars safer, including the creation in the mid-60's of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. US car makers resisted making seat belts a standard feature on automobiles (adds cost, 'scary' to prospective customers).

    There was a law passed mandating seatbelts in 1968. Swedish car maker Volvo had done so from 1955.

    GW Bush administration restrictions on studying gun safety as a public health problem in this nation are only now being broached by the CDC after the Newtown massacre.

    The repeal of the George W. Bush Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which gave legal immunity to gun makers and dealers for injury or crimes committed with their guns, signed by President Bush in 2005, would be welcome, yet possible only if the NRA's grip on Congress was loosened by more enlightened voting by the electorate.

    Just noted on posting a follow-up on the Santa Monica shooter story:

    Seabrooks said the semi-automatic weapon appears to have been built with component parts that are legal to obtain, but put together make the rifle illegal in California. She said he also modified an antique black-powder .44 revolver so that it could hold .45-caliber ammunition; it was loaded during the shooting and he carried it with him in a duffel bag.

    If you look back to your old post, you'll see I thought it a great idea, and still do.

    Complications present in this report, though, I guess along the lines of the best laid plans of mice and men, or perhaps Rosanne Rosannadanna....just goes to show you, it's always something....

    It's impossible to eliminate every assault weapon in the country, but I think it's a reasonable goal to raise barriers so that there are far fewer of them.

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