Gun Violence – If We Won’t Prevent It, Let’s At Least Find A Way To Pay For It

Following a mass shooting in Virginia Beach, VA, that resulted in the death of twelve people, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam called for a special session of the state legislature to enact gun control legislation. Amid finger pointing from both parties, Republican leaders, who hold the majority in the state senate, abruptly adjourned the session after meeting for less than two hours.  At best, Republicans recommended yet another commission to study the problem.[1]

That was just a month ago.  Now, in response to mass shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio, gun control advocates are calling on both the state and federal governments to respond with “commonsense legislation.”  It ain’t gonna happen.

In an earlier article (Firearms, Taxes, and Universal Health Care, 12/2/2018), I shared data about gun violence, such as the number of Americans killed or wounded by firearms.  I also shared information about costs associated with treating the victims of gun violence.  For example, according to a 2017 Washington Post article, the cost to treat gunshot victims is $2.8 billion a year.  If the injury can be treated on an outpatient basis the average cost for emergency treatment is $5,000; however, if the wound is more severe, requiring hospitalization, it can cost $100,000 or more.[2]  Another study by researchers at Johns Hopkins Hospital found that gunshot victims used 10 times more units of blood than other emergency room patients, at a cost of “$200 per unit of red blood cells, $500 per units of platelets, $50 per unit of plasma, and $250 per dose of cryoprecipitate.”[3]

In response to these costs, I’ve recommended a 5¢ per bullet surcharge to help offset the cost of treating gunshot victims.  As part of the universal health care plan I’ve proposed, these revenues will go into the health insurance fund administered by the National Health Insurance Program.  However, because we are still a number of years away from universal health care, there may still be ways to balance the cost of care for the victims of gun violence.  Here’s my plan:

  1. Pass legislation to levy the 5¢ per bullet surcharge now, with revenues going to the Department of Health and Human Services.  I’ve estimated that this could raise as much as $500 million per year.  These funds, dispersed by DHS, would be used to compensate hospitals for treating gunshot victims.  This would be particularly helpful to urban hospitals who often serve the poor and individuals without health insurance, in which case the hospital assumes much of the cost of care.  Through a voucher program, these funds could also be used to compensate victims for costs not covered by their insurance.
  2. Pass a 15% surtax on the sale of all firearms and firearm related equipment, such as gun sights, gun cleaning kits, holsters, etc.  Safety related items, such as gun locks, would be exempt from the tax.  Revenues would go to the Department of Justice which would disperse the funds, in the form of block grants, to compensate localities for enhancing law enforcement training and to pay for more police officers, especially more police protection for schools.  As the NRA likes to say, “The best defense against a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”  Thus, these tax revenues would be used to put more good guys on the streets.

No doubt, many gun owners will balk at these taxes.  They’ll complain that they are law abiding citizens, so why should they be taxed?  Here’s why: My hobby is model railroading.  I’ve never heard of anyone being killed or wounded by a model train.  Their hobby is collecting and using firearms, which kills around 80,000 people and injures over 100,000 per year.  With rights come responsibilities.

Would increasing the cost of firearms and related equipment reduce the sale of guns, in the same way increasing the cost of tobacco has reduced the number of smokers and thus smoking related deaths?  I doubt it, as these are two very different products.  We’ve been fairly successful in reducing the number of smokers by taking a multi-pronged approach: increasing the cost of a pack of cigarettes, making it illegal to smoke inside buildings and public transportation, prohibiting marketing in magazines and on television, and maintaining an anti-smoking marketing campaign.  This approach has been fruitful given that the nicotine in tobacco is highly addictive.

The only way that a tax on firearms would slow the sales of guns would be if the tax was excessively high, in the realm of 35% to 45% of the sales price.  That would raise the price of a $500 rifle to $675 to $725.  However, unlike smokers who may have a pack a day habit, hunters don’t typically purchase a lot of firearms every year (other than accessories); therefore, the additional cost, while irksome, is not prohibitive. 

Politically, this proposal could have traction.  Republicans will not vote for gun restrictions, even those that gun control advocates label as “commonsense” limitations.  And they oppose taxes.  But some Republican lawmakers may support these taxes if they are dedicated for a specific purpose and that purpose is credible.  In that way they can campaign on the fact that they upheld the rights of gun owners, while supporting the victims of gun violence.

Democrats should support these taxes for the same reason; if you can’t get gun control legislation passed, at least you are doing something related to the problem.  And who knows, maybe having more police on the streets would help to reduce gun violence.

The NRA would oppose it, as they have a knee jerk reaction to anything related to gun use, even when the tax would support their contention that we need more good guys with guns on the streets.  Hypocrisy is not something the NRA has a problem with.  Conversely, the American Medical Association, the American Hospital Association, and the National Association of Police Organizations should support it and could be allies in getting legislation passed.

To be clear, this proposal does not address prevention.  In the current political climate, that is impossible.  We have entered an age of mass shootings, including the killing of young children, and like Pharaoh, even that has not softened the hearts of gun rights advocates.  Rather, this proposal only takes effect in the aftermath of a shooting.  It does help to address the high cost of treating the victims of gun violence and it could make our streets safer.  And while not achieving the goal of gun violence prevention, it is something worth striving for.




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