Update: California Cites Pittman-Robertson to Impose First-in-the-Nation Tax on Guns and Ammo

Update: California Cites Pittman-Robertson to Impose First-in-the-Nation Tax on Guns and Ammo

Update: California Governor Gavin Newsom signed AB 28 into law on September 26, 2023. California is now the first state in the nation to impose a separate excise tax on all guns and ammunition.

"From my perspective, this is more of a sin tax, where this is cause and effect and justification," Newsom said at a press conference. "The health-related cost born by the taxpayers for gun violence is off the charts. Any fiscal conservative should be making that case... I think this is a pretty modest investment in reducing those costs."

The California state legislature is considering a bill that would make the Golden State the first in the nation to impose an excise tax on firearms and ammunition.

Assembly Bill 28 calls for an 11% excise tax on all “firearms, firearm precursor parts, and ammunition” sold in the state. That money would be deposited in a newly christened Gun Violence Prevention, Healing, and Recovery Act to fund various efforts related to violence intervention, school mental health, gun confiscation, and firearms education, among other programs.

Proponents of the bill argue that since firearms are used to kill and injure thousands of Californians every year, gun owners should foot the bill to support those victims. They point to the existing Pittman-Robertson excise tax on outdoor equipment to demonstrate the reasonableness of this new tax.

“The tax specified in this act is a modest and reasonable tax on a profitable industry whose lawful and legitimate business activity imposes substantial harmful externalities on California’s families, communities, and taxpayers,” the bill’s authors write. “The modest tax proposed in this measure mirrors the Pittman-Robertson federal excise tax on firearm and ammunition industry participants, is similarly dedicated to funding programs to remediate the harmful externalities of firearm industry commerce, and is similarly unlikely to discourage lawful sales and commerce in firearms or ammunition.”

AB 28 has passed three legislative committees by comfortable margins and is now before the California General Assembly. There is no word yet on when the full Assembly will consider this bill, but it can be brought out and voted upon at any time.

“The possibility of this bill’s passage is very real to the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), which is why we continue to fight against this legislation that would only burden law-abiding gun owners since the costs of additional excise taxes will be passed along to the buyers,” NSSF spokesman Mark Oliva told MeatEater. The NSSF is the firearms industry trade association, and the group has testified and submitted a letter to the Assembly opposing the bill

“This excise tax looks only to punish those who lawfully exercise their Second Amendment rights while doing nothing to address public safety or hold criminals accountable,” Oliva said.

Just Like Pittman-Robertson?

The federal government already imposes an 11% tax on long guns and ammunition and a 10% tax on handguns. These taxes have been in place since 1919 and are paid by gun and ammo makers and passed on to the consumer. In 1937, the Pittman-Robertson Act directed these funds to pay for conservation and wildlife management based on the assumption that gun owners are more likely to hunt and fish. The “user pays, public benefits” structure of the North American conservation model calls upon those who use natural resources–in this case, gun owners–to foot the bill for wildlife conservation.

The authors of AB 28 characterize the bill’s excise tax as analogous to Pittman-Robertson. They see gun owners and the gun industry as responsible for the criminal use of firearms, and so gun owners should pay to cover the costs of those damages.

“This act will similarly place a reasonable surtax on firearm and ammunition industry members profiting from the sale of firearms and ammunition in order to generate sustained revenue for programs that are designed to remediate the devastating effects these products cause families and communities across this state,” the authors write.

MeatEater’s Ryan Callaghan points out that a closer analogy would have those who commit crimes with firearms pay the excise tax–not those who use their firearms for lawful purposes.

“If California legislators actually wanted to model this bill after Pittman-Robertson, they’d go after the ‘users’ of gun crime, i.e., criminals who kill and wound people with guns,” he said. “Instead, the bill assumes that law-abiding gun owners are somehow implicated in the crimes of others.”

Callaghan also worries the legislation will have a deleterious effect on conservation funding.

“I wouldn't want to see this tax pass in California because of how valuable Pittman-Robertson funds are,” he explained. “If the 11% tax increases prices to a point where we see diminished return on Pittman-Robertson dollars, we are going to decrease funding for habitat and access to the outdoors–something we know promotes good mental health.”

A Track Record of Success?

California would be the first state in the nation to pass a broad tax on all guns and ammunition, but other municipalities have already tried the experiment. The city of Seattle imposed a firearms and ammunition tax in 2016 of $25 per firearm, $0.02 per round of ammunition .22-caliber or less, and $0.05 per round for all other ammunition. The city of Tacoma passed virtually the same tax in 2019.

In Seattle, shootings and shots fired dipped from 135 incidents in 2017 to 85 in 2018 but then rose steadily to 237 in 2022. Similarly, in 2022, Tacoma hit its highest number of homicides ever recorded in the city. Rising homicide rates have plagued virtually every major American city since 2020 whether firearms excise taxes are on the books or not.

Little empirical data exists on the efficacy of using gun taxes to reduce gun-related crime, according to a review of the literature published by the Rand Corporation. While this review notes that moderate tax increases on guns and ammunition are unlikely to disrupt hunting and recreational gun use, it also notes that a uniformly applied tax would “tend to overtax lower-risk purchasers and under-tax higher-risk purchasers.”

“If those who use firearms for nonviolent or legal, protective purposes are more responsive to changes in price than are those whose use engenders harm to themselves or others, this would mitigate the effectiveness of the tax as a means for gun violence prevention,” the study says.

Because AB 28 imposes a new tax on California residents, it requires a two-thirds majority vote in the legislature. While this is a higher bar than most legislation, the NSSF’s Mark Oliva believes it’s possible.

“There is a possibility that anti-gun politicians in California could succeed in garnering the two-thirds majority required to pass this burdensome tax on the firearm and ammunition industry,” he told MeatEater. “This bill has failed in previous sessions, but Democrats have a supermajority in California and can steamroll through legislation at will with little interference.”

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