Michael Wolraich's picture

    A Real Death Tax: Let the Killers Choose, Let the Profiteers Pay

    Premise 1: Killer Knows Best

    What makes one gun more lethal than another? Ever since Sandy Hook, the media has bombarded us with gun jargon. We've learned about flash suppressors and high-capacity magazines, threaded barrels and pistol grips. We've heard that these features are bad features, dangerous to children and other living things. The expired federal assault weapons law used to ban any gun with two or more of them. The new New York law bans them all.

    But we've also heard that gunmakers find ways to skirt these constraints. For instance, some manufacturers evaded California's quick-reload restriction with a "bullet button" that allows shooters to release a magazine with a bullet tip instead of a fingertip. It's hard for plodding legislatures to keep up with eager manufacturers, who have every incentive to invent the most lethal legal weapon possible.

    So if not the legislators, who should determine which guns are too deadly? Who in America most appreciates a gun's killing potential?

    The killers, of course. They're the ones who want to kill. They're the ones who pay attention to the features that help them do it. Of course, killers are not necessarily the most scientific buyers. They may choose big black rifles with scary names over more lethal alternatives. But that doesn't matter because it's not actual killing power we're after so much as perceived killing power. We want to eliminate the guns that most appeal to people who want to kill other people.

    No, I'm not suggesting that we send out surveys to convicted murderers. We have a much more reliable tool: crime statistics. The ATF and other law enforcement agencies already trace the guns and ammunition used in violent crimes. Determining the killers' favorite weapons should not be difficult.

    But how do we use the information? If we ban specific models, the manufacturers will simply release new models with slight variations and carry on as before.

    Which brings me to...

    Premise 2: Guns Kill People

    "Guns don't kill people, people kill people." So guns rights supporters recite like a mantra. The gun is just a tool, they say. Shall we penalize manufacturers and retailers any time some product they sell happens to be used in a crime?

    But guns are very different from other products. Unlike candlesticks, ropes, and lead pipes, guns are specifically designed to kill, and a far larger proportion of them have been used for that purpose. Hardware stores do not make much money from lead pipe murderers, but firearm manufacturers and retailers make a handy profit from death. Guns have killed nearly 400,000 Americans since 1980 and injured millions, which adds up to a robust trade in murder weaponry.

    The real money, however, is not in crime guns. The real money is in fear guns--the guns people buy to protect themselves from armed killers. In what the economists might call a "virtuous" circle, gun sales increase gun homicides which increase gun sales. In short, the more people die, the higher the profits for the firearm industry.

    So it seems only reasonable that companies that profit from gun crime should pay for the violence their merchandise inflicts on the country.

    Which brings me to...

    Conclusion: Let the Killers Choose, Let the Profiteers Pay

    Rather than ban particularly lethal gun models as most guns laws have attempted to do, I propose a "Death Tax." The more deadly the gun, the higher the tax. A Death Tax will not eliminate the particularly lethal guns, but it will reduce their availability and the number of lives they destroy.

    How do we determine the lethality? We let the killers decide. At the end of each year, we tabulate the guns used in violent crime and assess a substantial tax to the manufacturers that built them and the retailers that sold them.

    The tax should reflect the age of the guns and the popularity of the model. The Smith and Wesson .38 is one of the most popular crime guns because it is one of the most popular guns overall, not because it's the most lethal. The tax should be highest on recently sold guns in which a relatively high proportion have been used for crime. We can also add multipliers for mass-shootings and juvenile homicides.

    The intent of the Death Tax is to reverse the incentive structure. Currently, manufacturers and retailers have strong incentives to meet the demand for assault rifles and other especially deadly firearms. Manufacturers add bullet buttons and other workarounds to keep their guns as lethal as possible. Retailers stock these guns and sell them to people they shouldn't. If these companies have to pay a stiff enough price for selling guns to killers, they will start making greater efforts to avoid doing so. Manufacturers will make guns that are less attractive to mass-murderers and gangsters. Retailers will avoid assault rifles and employ more rigorous checks. The price of the most lethal guns will rise.

    The Death Tax would not stop the killing, but by making it harder to kill people, we could at least reduce the terrible cost that guns inflict on the country--perhaps much more effectively than trying to ban the weapons that politicians deem deadly.



    Law & Order covered this issue so many times!

    Kudos to you!


    I recall the public outcry (msm outcry really since the public has no idea) when the Supremes began shutting the doors of the courthouse to the shareholders!


    Look, if you pollute the environment, people die. They die of causes related to pollution of the waters and the air.

    So make the fracking arseholes pay the toll!

    If your five year old son dies as a result of gunfire; the survivors should be able to sue the manufacturers!

    I hate the courts, but damn, we have to put the fear of God into these bastards.

    If a stream of bad Oreos kill children because of some bacteria or virus; somehow Oreos have to pay the toll.


    We are at a point in this country where one company or an oligarchy can scam and take the resources available and make billions. and these oligarchies give one goddamn who is hurt because they know they never have to pay!

    So if they frack up, make them pay out of those billions for the damage done!

    I know I do this all the time but...

    A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

    Congress shall pass no Tax laws, intended to foil the right, to choose which arms to have.   

    According to research by renowned Florida State University criminologist Gary Kleck, guns are used between 800,000 and 2.5 million times every year in self-defense.

    Have the government pay for the guns, people use for protection, because WE know it being necessary to the security of a free people.

    Have the government pay for the guns, people use for protection

    That would mean the government would have a list of everyone who owns guns. I thought you were against that idea.

    A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

    We've always had a right to bear arms, but we've also always had gun control. Even in the Wild West, Americans balanced these two and enacted laws restricting guns in order to promote public safety. Why should it be so hard to do the same today?  (Hat tip: Orion.)

    That would mean the government would have a list of everyone who owns guns. I thought you were against that idea.

    No AA, they would only have a list of the ones the government bought.

    I am reminded of Iran Contra and the more recent Fast and Furious, I have no doubt the records will be flawed.

    US troops on US streets protecting whom?

    Is Posse Comitatus Dead? US Troops on US Streets

    Posse Comitatus Act - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

    If the president can order the killing of Americans on foreign soil, what prevents a President from doing it to Americans in the US?

    Who can stop it from occurring, in the event of a trumped up emergency? 

    The victim had weapons of mass destruction ? 

    It was enough to get the cowardly Democrats, to authorize the use of force.

    I thought at first you were kidding but it really is a great idea.  It would also solve the style/capability dispute.  The gun people like to argue that "assault weapons" are just a matter of style.  Ban them and spree killers will just move on to some other model that looks different but does just the same thing.  This tax would largely answer that question.


    I think firearm insurance would accomplish the same thing with less government intervention. More lethal guns would incur higher insurance rates, just as sports cars have higher insurance rates than minivans, and the rates would be based on actuarial tables, not floor votes and lobbying.

    Presumably those rates would also reflect the risk — both suicidal and homicidal — from and to the persons with access to the weapons. The fellow just arrested for stalking his old high school would see the insurance rates on his collection of weapons go way up.

    Donal!  Good idea.  Let the actuaries decide.  That could also bring a lot of other demographic data to the issue.  For example, if most spree killers are single white men between ages 25-40, they might have to pay higher rates to insure military style weapons while the fictional woman who needs a scary gun for self defense would pay a lower rate.

    I like this idea. It also provides some compensation to the victim's family. Another benefit is that it could be implemented by the states rather than the fed, like auto insurance laws.

    I do worry that it would introduce a whole new legal bureaucracy in the courts, but I suppose that it can't compare to the scope of auto tort.

    A bigger question is enforcement. Drivers are required to show proof of insurance if they are pulled over, yet there is still a problem with uninsured motorists. How do you make sure that gun owners get insurance for their guns? Even if people are required to show proof of insurance to purchase a gun, how would you force them to register their new guns with their insurance companies. And what happens if they stop paying their premiums?

    Another possible side-effect: You might get an explosion of illegal guns sales from people buying guns under the table to avoid insurance costs.

    Good questions.

    There will certainly be uninsured firearm owners, and doubtless some wag will claim if you require insurance for firearms, only uninsured criminals will have them — though that isn't the case with automobiles. Uninsured motorists are a problem in big cities, and insurance carriers add UIM riders to the policies of city drivers. The same might happen with firearm owners.

    As far as enforcement, we have to require a lot more documentation than we have now, which is of course a major hurdle.

    As far as owners failing to pay their premiums, one could ask the same question about failing to pay their firearms taxes. The idea that one could lose one's firearms whether for not paying taxes or not paying premiums won't be popular, and will be characterized as the government coming for your guns.


    The trouble is that there's a critical difference between automobiles and guns. You can't hide your car from the cops, not if you want to use it. Cars are out in public. They have to display a registration, which has to be regularly renewed. If you get stopped, you have to show your insurance. It's hard to drive without ever getting stopped, and the risk is enough to make the vast majority of people comply with the law.
    By contrast, unless you happen to be frisked--which is comparatively very rare, especially outside crime-ridden urban areas--there is very little risk that the average gun owner will ever have to show his gun to a cop. And even that small chance only applies to pistols. Other than a few gun nuts in open carry states, people don't walk around with ARs. So I would expect most AR owners facing expensive insurance premiums to gamble that they won't get caught.
    I see only two possible points of realistic enforcement--the point of sale and the gun range. In the first case, you might require the retailer to verify insurance (for the new gun) at the time of purchase by calling the insurance coming or registering it online. But to avoid people letting their payments lapse, it might have to be a lifetime insurance cost rather than a monthly premium. That could work, but if the premium is hefty, it would probably drive gun sales underground. Similar issue with gun ranges--people might avoid taking their guns to licensed gun ranges.

    I don't disagree, but again, all the same problems with enforcing insurance on firearms apply to collecting a tax on firearms. Even though it faces the same obstacles, I think firearms insurance makes more sense.

    Donal, an aside: I am happy to see you commenting here. That is all.

    Not all. I propose to tax the manufacturers and retailers, not the gun owners. Taxing companies is very easy to enforce, and the government does it all the time.

    PS Agree with AA. Very nice to see you here.

    OK, but based on tabulated lethality, you'll be taxing the hell out of semi-auto handguns. AR-15s account for a very small percentage of kills, so they'll be comparatively more affordable.

    It would be proportion-based, so it's not the absolute number of crimes but the total relative to the number of guns in circulation, per model. There would also be a multiplier for mass-shootings.

    That said, it may well be the case that some handgun models kill more disproportionately than ARs. If that's the case, so be it. We should be focusing on the guns that do the most damage.


    "Handguns are most often the type of firearm used in crime According to the Victim Survey (NCVS), 25% of the victims of rape and sexual assault, robbery, and aggravated assault in 1993 faced an offender armed with a handgun. Of all firearm-related crime reported to the survey, 86% involved handguns. The FBI's Supplemental Homicide Reports show that 57% of all murders in 1993 were committed with handguns, 3% with rifles, 5% with shotguns, and 5% with firearms where the type was unknown."

    10 most frequently traced guns in 1994

    1 Lorcin P25 .25 Pistol 3,223
    2 Davis Industries P380 .38 Pistol 2,454
    3 Raven Arms MP25 .25 Pistol 2,107
    4 Lorcin L25 .25 Pistol 1,258
    5 Mossburg 500 12G Shotgun 1,015
    6 Phoenix Arms Raven .25 Pistol 959
    7 Jennings J22 .22 Pistol 929
    8 Ruger P89 9 mm Pistol 895
    9 Glock 17 9 mm Pistol 843
    10 Bryco 38

    Mossburg, Ruger and Glock are recognized as high quality arms makers, and many, many police departments carry Glocks.

    The other models have been called the Ring of Fire, Saturday Night Specials, etc. Phoenix is still around, but Lorcin is defunct. Essentially Raven, Bryco and Jennings now operate as Jimenez. I suspect that taxing them would be difficult because they'd simply fold and reform under different names. Even if you did tax them, you'd simply make stolen guns a more attractive source than buying heavily-taxed cheap guns. Of course manufacturers would howl if you taxed them for selling guns that were stolen, then used in a crime.

    Thanks. In the post, I linked to a source with similar data from 2000. Oddly, I can't find anything more recent. I also haven't been able to find the total number of guns in circulation by model, but I haven't looked very hard.

    As for taxes, I'm perplexed by your position. You can't evade taxes by closing and reopening a corporation every year. The government would appropriate any profit. The investors would get nothing and could be liable for tax evasion to boot. It's not like corporate taxation is some newfangled idea.

    I find it hard to imagine a huge increase in stolen firearms if the prices go up. What are you going to rob, a gun store? Or are you going to break into the house (of an armed occupant) on the off-chance that there's an AK-47 (in the safe)?

    Many sources complain that the NRA has blocked the keeping of worthwhile statistics.

    How will you tax weapons that are no longer being sold? If I see that my Big Don .40 caliber pistol is showing up in the crime gun statistics, I'll sell the equipment to my cousin before the taxes even take effect. He'll then sell the Big John .40 caliber with enough changes to claim it is a different gun. Essentially that is what happened during the runup to the last assault weapons ban. The arms makers knew what was coming and changed their merchandise to evade the new restrictions.

    I've written about our local gun store before. The latest story is that an employee was found to be selling guns out the back door after hours. So you can rob a gun store. And a lot of gun owners don't own a gun safe. With two people working and kids at school, breaking into an empty house isn't such a big deal.

    The whole point of this proposal is to avoid the problem of manufacturers changing their products to get around restrictions. They can change the model every week if they want; they will still be taxed for any gun they've made that is used in a crime. If someone kills with a Big Don .40 in 2013 then Donal Killing Devices Inc. will be assessed a tax for the homicide in 2014. It doesn't matter whether DKD stops making Big Dons in 2014. DKD will still be taxed.

    There would have to be a grandfather clause for older guns, but it doesn't matter. The point is to influence manufacturers product design decisions going forward.

    PS For the record, the Big Don couldn't kill a weasel

    So now you're talking about a penalty tax, not a sales tax. To impose a penalty tax, wouldn't you have to prove that the taxed party did something wrong? If selling a gun that ends up being used in a crime incurs a penalty tax, wouldn't that open the door to penalties for anything else that is sold, then used for a crime, like knives, rope, poisons, anything that can be used to make a bomb, etc.?

    A penalty for exercising our right to bear arms?

    I don't remember the Supreme Court case; except the particular case revolved around a defendant, who exercised his rights to a jury trial and the lower court judge added a penalty fine, to cover the cost of the trial. The SCOTUS ruled, this was an egregious error.

    From another source

    "The black letter rule is clear: where it can be inferred from the language of the trial judge that a sentence was imposed even in part because the defendant insisted on a trial by jury, the defendant’s constitutional rights have been abridged"

    " WE" the people, as a whole, share in the cost, of protecting our rights.

    People don't get to pick and choose who gets a guaranteed right or penalize those who do exercise their rights.

    You have the right to remain silent; but if you do exercise that right, you will be penalized/punished ?

    Who gives the right to insurance companies to invade privacy issues, allowing them to do, what the government themselves can't force

    When they ask "you own a gun? Take the fifth.

    I'm not interested in slippery slope arguments. The government has no interest in penalizing rope makers. Ropes don't kill 10,000 people a year.

    If you prefer, you can call it a fine.

    The whole point of this proposal is to avoid the problem of manufacturers changing their products to get around restrictions. They can change the model every week if they want; they will still be taxed for any gun they've made that is used in a crime. If someone kills with a Big Don .40 in 2013 then Donal Killing Devices Inc. will be assessed a tax for the homicide in 2014. It doesn't matter whether DKD stops making Big Dons in 2014. DKD will still be taxed.

    There would have to be a grandfather clause for older guns, but it doesn't matter. The point is to influence manufacturers product design decisions going forward.

    PS For the record, the Big Don couldn't kill a weasel

    How would you get insurance companies to write the policies?  Seems like if they saw money in it, they would already be selling liability insurance to gun owners since they can already be held liable legally for misuse.

    Then too there is the argument that mandatory insurance is just a disguised tax.


    Seems they already see money in it:



    I'm not claiming mandatory firearm insurance would be popular. People are used to owning guns for nothing, except for bullets, and no one welcomes an added cost. But based on the example of auto insurance, I think it is more defensible than a morality tax on certain weapons.


    Would be interesting to see if there is an 'act of insanity' exclusion. smiley



    That is so pie in the sky, isn't it? There is no incentive whatsoever for a private insurance company to make gun ownership difficult. The only field of our society that takes interest in public safety is the government. If you want to reduce gun violence, the government has to do the deed. No one else will.

    Heh, check this out:

    Ha. Took me a moment to realize this was an Onion hit. My initial confusion speaks volumes about the absurdity of our real gun debates.

    It isn't just the gun issue, Mike. This world has gotten so absurd The Onion might as well go out of business.

    I guess this is supposed to be some tongue in cheek comical post, on a very serious topic, that has no prospects in or connection to reality.

    Congress already exempted gun dealers and manufacturers from lawsuits in the 2005 Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act. A Congress that exempts them from legal liability for gun misuse, will not saddle them with new taxes for gun misuse. 

    A Rube Goldberg law to make guns less lethal and save lives through an indirect mechanism of counting dead bodies is frankly ridiculous, and as such is an diversion from dealing with the real issue of gun violence.

    I don't understand why you think it's a ridiculous idea, not from what you've said here.

    I don't see an emphasis in his ideas about making gun makers more liable and taxing them. The emphasis is on  taxation oriented to the potential gun buyers and gun owners, with the most dangerous weapons ending up costing the most. But they would cost the most only because of the tax on purchasing them/owing them, so there would be no extra profit incentive for gun makers in continuing to promote the ownership of the products with the highest tax. Gun makers would be incentivized to promote the safest, least lethal guns,  to stop marketing people killing machines and ammo, and to promote a legal market in sporting weapons, rather than a partly clandestine outlaw market in macho people-killing machines. They'd be working hard to promote things like handguns with unbreakable trigger locks that were useless when stolen, they'd put the "low death number" on the box with pride.

    You know Volvo's ad campaign?

    You don't think high taxation and affecting tobacco marketing didn't work reducing tobacco use? I got news for you, coming from a smoker: it worked.

    No, it wouldn't stop a mentally ill kid from a wealthy family from taking one of his father's exquisitely expensive arsenal and shooting up a local school. (Likewise a mentally-ill rich kid could also take his Dad's $250,000 Ferrari on a 150 m.p.h. spin down Fifth Avenue.Could happen!) But if pro-gun-control people are honest, they will admit that is not the real gun violence problem in this country.

    Michael: I like the general idea. Put a sign up in Congress: it's the marketing, stupid.

    Thanks, AA. I'm sure that there are many unanticipated problems with the idea and that it hasn't a chance in hell of passing in the near future, but since throwing it out in a comment a few weeks ago, I haven't been able to shake it.

    So sorry. Shame on me for diverging from orthodoxy. Would you be willing to review my next piece and let me know whether it's stupid before I go distracting everyone with it? I was thinking of writing something about how assault rifles should be banned.

    I was thinking of writing something about how assault rifles should be banned.

    Seriously? Or are you being facetious?

    Because a major part of what I liked about your idea is that lawmakers and non-gun people do not really know what is the most dangerous in weapons and enact stupid laws that can easily be worked around. (Something I have only learned recently.) The gun makers do know, and that's the beauty of your plan: make them want to make and sell the least dangerous weapons and also weapons that are hard to steal or borrow.

    Sarcastic. I have a rule against offering serious replies to obnoxious comments.

    Ok, my stupid.

    My tobacco analogy got me thinking on that more. There are lessons there. Big tobacco actually teamed up with their arch enemy, the anti-tobacco lobby, to try to exterminate the Native-American tobacco business, simply because the Native American tobacco sellers were a competitor offering product without the Federal taxes. It's only because of Big Tobacco's help that tobacco can no longer be sent through the U.S. mail, (nor any other major carrier, though that is not law, only by the carriers' choice) and also that most major credit cards will not service the Native American tobacco sellers.

    I don't think the same model would work. The Native American tobacco sellers were able to bypass existing taxes and rapidly grab market share. It was a no-brainer for Big Tobacco sacrifice their mail order business to defeat the upstarts.

    But creating a new tax on guns would be a very hard sell for the firearm industry. It would certainly cost the big gun manufacturers a great deal even if it would hurt their small competitors more. I can't see them buying into it, but it's an interesting thought.

    I just meant that it is far easier for industries like this to change the forces they have been allied with and attitudes about marketing than one might think. Especially once they are "regulated" with a tax with the intent to discourage some purchases, that they'll  not just drop "ideological" bedfellows (here: those who think there is nothing wrong with selling tobacco,) but join with industry enemies to try to ensure they have to follow the same rules or be put out of business.

    Who is being obnoxious?? 'I was thinking of writing something about how assault rifles should be banned.' 

    Just so happens 26 people just got killed with one in Newtown, and just so happens such a law is being discussed. This isn't the War on Christmas.

    I'm reminded of the "carbon tax". remember this?

    "Sen. Bernard Sanders, Vermont independent and self-described socialist who caucuses with the Democrats, said he plans to introduce legislation in February that will charge companies a fee for carbon pollution, in addition to ending tax subsidies for oil and coal companies and making “historic investments” in renewable energy sources, such as wind, solar, geothermal and biomass. The bill, he said, would also give consumers a rebate “to offset any efforts by the fossil-fuel companies to jack up their prices,” he said in a statement.

    When asked if the president could support such a measure, however, Mr. Carney demurred, saying only that the White House does not support a tax on carbon emissions."

    If there's no will in Washington to tax the major causes of greenhouse gases, I don't see the Death Tax getting traction. It's a great idea, which should be part of a comprehensive strategy to deal with our absurd gun violence/death problem, but most good ideas these days are ignored by our political leadership.

    It's one reason why the public approval rating of congress is at an all time low.






    Thanks demun. Cap-n-trade is a fair comparison, insofar as it took a fresh, incentive-based approach to an old problem. I have no illusion about a Death Tax being passed any time soon; just brainstorming here. But if I were a powerful pol trying to build momentum for the idea, I would certainly look at what went wrong with cap-and-trade.

    Well said!

    Well said!

    Donal wins the influence-the-debate competition!

    Latest Front in the Gun Debate Is Mandatory Insurance

    The two sides in the gun debate seem to agree that the insurance industry should play a bigger role in an armed society, but they differ on state proposals seeking to make liability coverage mandatory.

    Ha! I thought of a name, too: SemiAuto Insurance. Now if I can just get a cut of the premiums ...

    Interesting and encouraging. The article doesn't my concern about enforcement though.

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