On CA gun tax, some are missing the entire problem

Glock Model 21" by Michael @ NW Lens is marked with CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED.

California seems bound and determined to make it harder for poorer folks there to exercise their right to keep and bear arms. The most recent effort is an 11 percent tax on both guns and ammunition.

The tax is meant to go toward funding anti-violence efforts throughout the state.

Over and over again, we’ve seen people try to justify this particular tax by comparing it to, say, hunters paying a tax for the conservation of wildlife.

And then we have those who just try to sell it based on what the money will reportedly go for.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has an opportunity to make such an investment at a historic scale. He can do so by signing a bill to enact the nation’s first state excise tax on retail sales of guns and ammunition. Passed by the Legislature this month after a series of failed attempts, the 11% tax would raise an estimated $159 million a year to prevent gun violence.

The largest share of that revenue would be directed to street-level violence intervention programs. The tax would also enable investments in school safety and programs to take guns away from people prohibited from owning them.

The intervention programs disrupt street violence by working with people at high risk, including incarcerated youths, gang members and potential recruits, and people hospitalized with gunshot wounds. They provide conflict mediation, peer support, mentorship, trauma counseling and even relocation assistance to remove people from dangerous circumstances.

These programs employ proven, evidence-based strategies in communities where intervention saves lives. Although gun violence is epidemic across the country, it is particularly devastating in Black and Latino communities. Half of California’s gun homicide victims last year were Latino, and 31% were Black. Black parents are more likely to lose their young sons to gun homicide than to every other cause of death combined, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

It takes armies of homegrown peacemakers at the community level to steer people away from social networks in which gun violence is embedded and break this horrific cycle. The Urban Peace Institute’s Los Angeles Violence Intervention Coalition, for instance, comprises 20 front-line Black- and brown-led peacemaker organizations that need more investment in community-based safety.

Now, here’s the thing. In and of itself, I have no problem with any of these efforts. Reducing the causes of violent crime is a net benefit to society in ways that go beyond crime statistics. Less funding needed for incarceration, for one thing, as well as people contributing to the economy in lawful ways, helping our nation prosper.

These are all good things.

The issue is where this is coming from.

A tax on the manufacturers and sellers of guns and ammunition is a logical source of funding for violence prevention. California has long levied excise taxes on products that do harm, among them alcohol, tobacco and, most recently, marijuana. And there is no doubt that guns cause harm: In California, someone is killed with a gun every three hours.

A federal excise tax on guns to fund wildlife preservation was supported by the National Rifle Assn. and has been in place for more than a century. That’s all the more noteworthy given that the Supreme Court has ruled that modern gun laws must be grounded in historical practice. If we can have a federal tax on guns dedicated to conserving wildlife, a state tax dedicated to reducing human carnage is eminently reasonable.

Except, again, taxing hunters for wildlife conservation is a different matter entirely. Hunters directly benefit from conservation efforts. Think of it as a fee for making sure there will be game for generations to come. Hunters don’t mind paying that tax, generally speaking, for just that reason.

Yet the lawful buying and selling of guns is very different, both from taxes for hunting and from taxes on products that supposedly do harm.

A firearm lawfully used doesn’t hurt innocent people. There are firearms that have been in families for generations that have never hurt a single human being.

As such, lawful gun owners shouldn’t be taxed to this level, even for programs that seek to reduce violent crime.

“But they’ve got to pay for it!” someone will respond, and they’re right. Programs need funding from somewhere.

Yet we should also remember that the state of California is the fourth most taxed state in the nation, all things considered. It has the highest income taxes in the country. It has the most expenditures in the entire United States.

Now, do you mean to tell me that these programs are absolutely vital to keeping Californians safe while at the same time being so trivial that lawmakers can’t cut some other kind of spending to fund them? Really?

Very few people are going to take issue with the programs this tax is meant to fund. The issue is the tax itself.

The programs are a justification. They’re the excuse for the tax. They’re not the reason.

The reason is to make it more difficult for people to own firearms, plain and simple. These programs are just the thing they’ll hold up as why people should vote for it, a sort of reverse poison pill.

What they’re hoping is that no one will realize that in the hundreds of billions of dollars currently spent by the state, there’s bound to be a couple hundred million that could be freed up for these programs as it is.