President Obama got it wrong, and comedian Chris Rock got it right. No amount of Executive Orders and no amount of federal legislation will make a meaningful difference in controlling gun violence in the United States. The reality is that anyone who wants a gun can obtain one—either legally or illegally. In West Philadelphia last month a police officer was ambushed and shot three times. The assailant’s weapon was a service revolver stolen from the home of a Philadelphia police officer. The guns used in the San Bernardino shooting were legally purchased and then sold or given to the terrorists. The Sandy Hook mass murderer had access to his mother’s stash of weapons. Gun control would not have deterred the majority of mass killings in the United States.
There are already 300 million guns in homes and private hands in the United States. That’s not going to change for some time, even if every gun manufacturer on the planet were to shut down tomorrow. Properly maintained, most of those 300 million guns will be around for decades or even centuries. On the other hand, the bullets that do the killing and inflict grievous injuries are cheap, in limited supply, and, once used, have no further value.
Chris Rock, in a routine captured in Michael Moore’s anti-gun film, Bowling for Columbine, tossed off the line that, “If a bullet costs $5,000, there’d be no more innocent bystanders.” Rock is on to something, and he’s not the only one. In 1993, the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D–NY) explained that controlling guns as a means of stopping criminal violence was hopeless. Guns, Moynihan said, are simple machines and last forever.
A more promising approach, noted Moynihan, would be increasing the tax on bullets. The police and military could buy bullets tax-free, and perhaps gun ranges could also sell ammunition tax-free. But for everyone else, Moynihan wanted to levy a tax of “ten-thousand percent” or $75 tax per bullet. The more devastating ammunition—hollow-tipped, armor piercing, and assault weapon bullets could be taxed at even higher rate (although probably not $5,000 per bullet).
Sadly, Moynihan’s prescient solution got lost in the heat of gun-control debates over the past two decades. But the idea of taxing bullets merits a closer look. First, there are indeed a limited number of bullets produced each year. According to the United States Treasury Department, individuals bought more than 12 billion rounds of ammunition in 2009. Most of those bullets are expended in hunting or target practice. In all likelihood, that number is greater in 2016. Simple math means that there are forty bullets sold each year for every gun in the United States. The cost of a 9mm bullet, advertised for sale online, is about fifty cents (The average cost of a cigarette in 2015 was a little less than thirty cents). In fact, any one with $50 can buy a hundred bullets, no questions asked, no background check required. To test this out, I just went online and bought 1,000 9mm bullets for $169.99. Second, and most importantly, bullets are the “consumable.” Once used, they are useless (although an additional tax could be applied to re-selling the cartridges). The United States has had some success in reducing cigarette use, alcohol consumption, and even fuel consumption by increasing taxes on the consumable. Prices for bullets probably are not elastic. At a certain cost, fewer bullets will be purchased and the cost of stockpiling ammunition will become onerous. Third, the federal and state governments already have the authority to levy taxes. Lastly, raising the cost of bullets does not directly infringe on the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of the people’s rights to “keep and bear arms.” The population will still have the right to “bear arms.” It is just going to be much more expensive to load the weapons.
There is another virtue in re-introducing Senator Moynihan’s proposal to levy a burdensome tax on bullets. The current gun control debate is ossified, with both sides dug into long-established and entrenched positions. The pro-gun lobby clings to the Second Amendment and resists any proposal to ban any kind of weapon, as the front end of a slippery slope that they claim will result in the government taking away their guns. The gun-control lobby clings to the somewhat naive notion that they can somehow keep the existing 300 million guns out of the wrong hands. Frankly, the entire debate and discussion over guns has taken on a “Kabuki-like” ritual. A mass shooting occurs, the President appears on television and repeats his outrage, gun control advocates respond with the usual data and logic, and then nothing happens. While it’s easy to criticize Congress’s refusal to enact gun control legislation, the reality again is that none of the proposed legislation would make the tiniest dent in the massive number of guns in circulation. The ritual produces no meaningful discussion, no new ideas, and a perpetuation of the status quo. (Or worse, for gun-control advocates: Since every time gun control seems in prospect, gun sales increase.)
Testing the price elasticity of an undesirable product and taxing vice is hardly a new approach and never 100 percent effective. But reducing the number of bullets available for the existing 300 million guns is a much more promising approach than the futile attempt to limit ownership of the existing weapons.