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California Mayor to Tax Law-abiding Gun Owners for the Actions of Criminals

Friday, August 30, 2019

California Mayor to Tax Law-abiding Gun Owners for the Actions of Criminals

This week, San Jose, Calif. Mayor Sam Liccardo took to the pages of the Washington Post to tout a plan to require law-abiding gun owners in his city to purchase firearms insurance. Under the Liccardo proposal, firearms owners would be required to purchase “coverage for accidental discharge of the gun, and for the intentional acts of third parties who steal, borrow, or otherwise acquire the gun.” If unable to acquire insurance, or as an alternative to purchasing insurance, the city would “require gun owners to pay a per-household fee to participate in a public compensation pool to eliminate the public cost -- a taxpayers subsidy -- of gun violence resulting from private ownership.” Further, Liccardo wants the city to explore “a measure that would impose a tax on all ammunition and firearm purchases.”

It is instructive that the Liccardo “fee” and “tax” proposals were presented alongside his “insurance” proposal. As a practical matter, all three proposals are an attempt to tax law-abiding gun owners out of exercising their constitutionally-protected rights.

Contrary to the fawning media coverage of Liccardo’s “insurance” proposal, it is not a “different” approach to gun control. The notion of weaponizing insurance to attack gun owners has been around for decades. In 1996, Simi Valley, California Police Chief Randy G. Adams proposed a plan to require all concealed carry permit holders to obtain $1 million worth of liability insurance as a prerequisite to licensure. In recent years, lawmakers in several states have proposed legislation requiring gun owners to obtain such insurance.

In pushing his new tax, Liccardo repeatedly compares mandatory firearms liability insurance to mandates requiring car insurance. Here, the mayor is comparing apples to oranges. The vast majority of harm resulting from the use of motor vehicles is the result of accidents. There are a small and decreasing number of accidents involving firearms each year. However, the vast majority of harm perpetrated with firearms is intentional.

Under Liccardo’s proposal, the “insurance” would be for the rare accident and “the intentional acts of third parties.” In other words, accidents and circumstances where a criminal steals a gun from a law-abiding gun owner and commits a criminal act.

Now compare this to car insurance. If a criminal were to break into a victim’s garage, steal their car, and then run over a pedestrian, who would be held responsible? Not the car’s owner or their insurance company. The responsibility would rest where it belongs, on the criminal. Would it be proper to force law-abiding car owners to underwrite the costs of all the potential criminal misuse of their vehicles if stolen? Or, does society properly understand that the criminal’s actions are their own and treat them accordingly?

In his commentary, Liccardo adopts a collectivist approach to the issue of violence perpetrated with firearms. The mayor claims that “taxpayers have subsidized gun ownership and the harms that accompany it.” In economic terms, Liccardo might argue that the mere private ownership of firearms has negative externalities. Under this thinking, when a person buys a firearm, they are not internalizing the full cost of their decision to exercise their rights.

This issue of externalities is often illustrated in the environmental context. For instance, a person who drives will purchase gasoline for their car. As the car is driven, it emits pollution into the air. Absent a specific tax on the gasoline or car, an economist might point out that the driver did not pay a price sufficient to reflect the cost their pollution imposes on the rest of society. This societal cost that the driver did not pay for would be a negative externality.

Private firearms ownership does not map onto this kind of thinking. The mere presence of a firearm in the home of a law-abiding gun owner imposes no societal cost. If a criminal breaks into the home, steals the firearm, and misuses it, then that criminal has created a cost to society. Society can attempt to exact the price of that harm from the criminal using the criminal and civil judicial systems. Under Liccardo’s collectivist thinking, the law-abiding gun owner who was the victim of theft is in some part guilty alongside the criminal who stole and misused the firearm.

While Liccardo has draped his proposals in flowery language, in reality this is just another unsophisticated attempt to price Americans out of gun ownership. Liccardo appeared to admit that his proposal is aimed at pricing young adults out of exercising their Second Amendment right. An article from an NPR affiliate stated,

Just like how car insurance is expensive for young drivers, Liccardo says, premiums could help ensure more of the cost falls on “folks who should not be getting access to guns” in the first place.

Such candor is unwise. The federal courts have not looked favorably on attempts to curb constitutional rights through targeted taxation.

The 1983 U.S. Supreme Court case Minneapolis Star and Tribune Co. v. Minnesota Com'r of Revenue addressed a discriminatory use tax on paper and ink consumed in publication. The Court determined that the tax was an unconstitutional attack on First Amendment rights. The Court explained that “A power to tax differentially, as opposed to a power to tax generally, gives a government a powerful weapon against the taxpayer selected.” Such a tax targeted at gun owners, even if disguised as an insurance requirement, would be a similarly suspect attack on Second Amendment rights.

Liccardo’s proposal is not without irony, as it comes at the same time there has been a push to restrict the types of insurance available to law-abiding gun owners. Anti-gun lawmakers in several jurisdictions have taken issue with insurance policies that protect law-abiding gun owners in the event they are forced to use a firearm in self-defense.

Last year, the CATO Institute pointed out one populous Northeastern state’s schizophrenia on this issue. Moreover, legislation has been introduced in California to restrict the types of insurance law-abiding gun owners may purchase.

Far from novel, Liccardo’s “insurance” proposal is just the latest attempt to place barriers between law-abiding Americans and their right to keep and bear arms.

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