A bullet tax! Genius! Why don’t we just tax people who commit crimes? That’d really punish them. Oh wait, we do. It’s called incarceration, fines, and restitution.
A mayoral candidate’s plan to reduce violence in Baltimore includes a “bullet tax” that he said will increase the cost of committing a crime.
Otis Rolley said he would, if elected, propose a $1 per bullet tax on all bullet purchases in the city. The idea was part of an overall crime plan he unveiled Tuesday. . . .
“This is not a revenue enhancement tool,” Rolley said of the tax idea. “It’s a ‘make it difficult for you to buy bullets in the city’ tool.” . . .
Rolley said the bullet tax would cause a decrease in “random firings that too often happen around holidays” and put a high price tag on the cost of committing a crime.
Where do I start? First, from a policy perspective, it’s a dumb idea. A tax that is not a revenue enhancing tool is a tax. That is the purpose of a tax–to raise money. Perhaps call it an excise, or just call it a fee.
Second, would this really make it difficult for someone to buy a bullet in a city? Purchasing bullets outside city limits–especially with this steep tax–just became more appealing. Especially when a box of twenty-five 9mm rounds, for example, will double in price from about $25 to $50!
Third, will this really deter random firings (especially around holidays!)? Assuming a person “random[ly]” shoots someone else, they will have already purchased the bullet. This won’t deter anything. Now, perhaps you may argue that taxing the bullet may make a person less likely to engage in a random shooting. After all, a person about to mortally wound someone else will be deterred at the thought of paying $1 too much for a bullet. Penny wise, pound foolish, no? This is even dumber than the deterrence-reasoning behind Caylee’s Law.
Now lets get to the constitutional arguments. The right to keep and bear arms is a fundamental, constitutionally protected right (whether Rolley likes it, or not). Placing an excessive tax on the exercise of a right has serious constitutional problems. Instructive is Grossjean v. American Press Co., in which the Court found that a special tax placed on newspapers infringed First Amendment rights. Plus, with the 7th Circuit’s recent opinion in Ezell, attempts to infringe a constitutional right through backdoor approaches like taxing bullets or banning firing ranges will not pass constitutional muster.
Currently a suit in New York City is seeking to challenge a $340 annual registration fee, where the fee elsewhere in the state is only $10 a year (see here and here for more). I can imagine a similar suit against this tax.
I’m reminded of a quote from a classic Chevy Chase movie, National Lampoon’s Vegas Vacation:
[Marty points to the Table Limit Sign $10 minimum]
Marty: Come on, Griswold, You think that sign is there to hold the table down?
Clark Griswold: What can I do with five dollars?
Marty: Gee, I don’t know. Buy a bullet and rent a gun?
In Baltimore, Clark would not have even been able to buy the bullet!