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Illinois: Cook County Considers "Violence Tax"

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

On Nov. 2, the Cook County, Ill., Board of Commissioners narrowly voted to approve a budget proposal that would levy a tax of $25 on each firearm purchased. 

In October, Board President Toni Preckwinkle had proposed not only the gun tax, but also a 5-cent tax on every round of ammunition sold in the nation’s second largest county. If adopted, the proposed tax would have fallen almost exclusively on law-abiding gun owners, driving up the cost of some calibers by over 150 percent. Preckwinkle defended the proposal as a way to curb violence in Cook County, saying, “The wide availability of ammunition exacerbates the problem.”

The proposal is divorced from reality. A survey of federal and state inmates, published by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, found that only a small fraction of the criminals acquired their guns at retail stores. Most opted for the black market or theft. Illinois requires a state Firearm Owner’s Identification Card (foid) to purchase ammunition, so the criminals of Cook County have already proven their willingness to obtain ammunition illegally. (Preckwinkle appeared ignorant of the foid requirement and other laws, misleading the Chicago media by claiming that “ammunition sales are not regulated, which means even ammunition used in illegal gun activity can be purchased legally.”)

Additionally, criminals use very little ammunition. A study of four years of criminal shootings in Jersey City, n.j., found that the perpetrators fired an average of 3.2 to 3.7 shots in attacks using semi-automatic handguns and 2.3 to 2.6 with revolvers. In contrast, law-abiding gun owners often use hundreds of rounds of ammunition in a single trip to the range.

Though Preckwinkle is an avowed “progressive,” her proposed tax is decidedly regressive, burdening those who can afford it least. Wealthier residents could avoid the tax by crossing the county line, while those of lesser means, often living in some of the most dangerous neighborhoods, would have to pay the tax or forgo exercising the right to self-defense. 

The Constitution isn’t on Preckwinkle’s side either. Federal and state courts have consistently blocked discriminatory taxes on the exercise of constitutional rights. In 1983, for example, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a special tax on ink and paper for publications, saying, “A power to tax differentially, as opposed to a power to tax generally, gives a government a powerful weapon against the taxpayer selected.” 

And although skeptical council members shelved the ammunition tax, Cook County gun owners shouldn’t celebrate just yet. Preckwinkle has made clear her plans to pursue an ammunition tax in the future. 

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