History professor Saul Cornell has opposed the individual right to keep and bear arms for a long time. In fact, during the Heller case more than a decade ago, Cornell helped author a court brief that argued there was no individual right to keep and bear arms; instead, the 2nd Amendment only protected the right of the states to have militias, not the right of the people to keep and bear arms.
Cornell lost that argument, but he’s still doing everything he can to make it as difficult as possible for Americans to exercise their rights. His latest argument piggybacks off of proposals we’ve seen from Elizabeth Warren and San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo to impose onerous taxes and fees on American gun owners. Specifically Cornell says we should be raising taxes on so-called “assault weapons”.
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.
This may seem like an obvious point, but Cornell seems to be missing it, so let’s spell it out. It’s one thing to pay an excise tax that goes towards wildlife conservation and restoration. It’s another thing entirely to impose a tax in order to prevent some folks from owning a firearm, and that’s exactly why Cornell wants to put a tax in place.
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.
Cornell explicitly states that taxing semi-automatic rifles is a strategy to reduce the number of Americans owning them. Any sort of revenue raised is an afterthought, because the primary purchase is to discourage gun ownership, not raise money for any type of anti-violence programs.
Another advantage of using taxation instead of gun bans is that such a policy would provide an opportunity to reward the vast majority of American gun owners who already engage in safe gun practices. Tax policies could offer tax deductions for the purchase of gun safes or for the cost of safety courses. Weapons stored at federally licensed firing ranges or hunting lodges might incur no tax. But if you wanted the convenience of having such a weapon at home, you could be taxed for the privilege. Most Americans recognize that convenience usually comes at a price. Individuals could decide how much they value easy access to their guns and pay the tax on home storage.
Offering tax breaks or credits for purchasing gun safes or to pay for firearms training is a far different thing than raising taxes in an attempt to stop people from buying guns, and the idea of charging people a tax to keep their firearms at home is absolutely absurd. Again, keeping and bearing arms is a right, not a privilege.
Cornell suggests that raising taxes to the point that they inhibit gun purchases is actually protecting gun owner’s rights, which is a perfect argument coming from someone who doesn’t really think gun ownership is a right in the first place. The 2nd Amendment isn’t contingent on the amount of money in your bank account. A resident of public housing has the exact same 2nd Amendment rights as someone who lives in a mansion in a gated community, and when the government puts policies in place that allow for the wealthy to continue to exercise those rights while preventing lower-income Americans from doing so, the government is guilty of infringing on the rights of the very people who need to be able to exercise them the most.