I’ll let you in on a little secret. Our country is very unlikely to enact meaningful gun restrictions, universal background checks, or an assault rifle ban anytime soon. As in, “ever.”
Every day in this country, we have mass shootings, including especially horrific ones like the murder last week of three 9-year-old students and three adults at a Nashville school. As reported in The New York Times, which cited the Gun Violence Archive, the United States by late March had seen 130 mass shootings this year.
The Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit, defines a mass shooting as one in which at least four people were killed or injured.
“Last year, the group counted 647 mass shootings,” The Times reported. “Of those, 21 involved five or more fatalities.”
And how do our governmental leaders respond, time and time again? By doing nothing — or by actually loosening gun laws.
In North Carolina last week, the General Assembly eliminated the requirement that those wanting to buy a pistol have to have a purchase permit issued by the local Sheriff’s Office in addition to the federal background check. The votes to override Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of the legislation fell along strict party lines, with every Republican in the N.C. House and Senate voting to eliminate the need for permits, and every Democrat who voted, voting to keep them.
As I noted in a previous column, citing statistics gathered by State Sen. Julie Mayfield (D-Buncombe), the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office last year received over 2,700 pistol permit applications, approving all but 63, a 2 percent denial rate.
Denials included one person who was a fugitive from justice, one person in the country unlawfully, seven people on active probation, eight with domestic violence convictions or protective orders in place, 17 people convicted of felonies, and 16 determined to be mentally ill or involuntarily committed.
Of the 63 people denied permits in Buncombe, Mayfield noted, only nine were denied because the federal database flagged them.
Isn’t it reassuring to know that the General Assembly now makes it possible for these 54 probationers, wife-beaters, felons, and mentally ill folks to soon have unfettered access to a pistol?
In short, the pistol purchase permit system worked. Yes, it was inconvenient for buyers, but it kept guns out of the hands of people who should not own them.
But we cannot have that kind of nonsense in the land of the free!
In Florida, as reported by NBC News, “Florida’s Republican-controlled Legislature passed a bill Thursday to allow people to carry concealed loaded weapons anywhere without permits. The bill now goes to Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has repeatedly indicated he will sign it. The measure would scrap existing requirements for concealed weapons permits, including an extra layer of background checks, licensing and firearms training.”
As I’ve said before, we have a sickness in this country when it comes to guns — and that’s coming from a guy who owns guns and has a concealed carry permit. Actions like these in North Carolina and Florida are just … how to put this nicely … stupid and dangerous.
But our politicians lack the will to override such idiocy.
How machine guns were taken off the streets
They had the will in the 1930s. Have you ever heard of the National Firearms Act (NFA) of 1934?
“Similar to the current NFA, the original act imposed a tax on the making and transfer of firearms defined by the Act, as well as a special (occupational) tax on persons and entities engaged in the business of importing, manufacturing, and dealing in NFA firearms,” the ATF website states.
The law also required the registration of firearms mentioned in the act with the Secretary of the Treasury. Those firearms included shotguns, rifles having barrels less than 18 inches in length, machine guns, and firearm mufflers and silencers.
But mostly legislators were after the machine guns.
Most of us today don’t remember the 1930s all that well, but in those days of Al Capone and gangland massacres, politicians actually thought they should do something about all the slayings. And these were adults being killed, not 9-year-old kids at school.
“While the NFA was enacted by Congress as an exercise of its authority to tax, the NFA had an underlying purpose unrelated to revenue collection,” the ATF states. “As the legislative history of the law discloses, its underlying purpose was to curtail, if not prohibit, transactions in NFA firearms.”
That means machine guns.
So the federal government imposed a $200 tax on making and transferring the guns in the act, which at the time was “considered quite severe and adequate to carry out Congress’ purpose to discourage or eliminate transactions in these firearms. The $200 tax has not changed since 1934.”
Adjusted for inflation, $200 in 1934 is equivalent to $4,490 in 2023.
The law held for more than three decades, but in 1968 the Supreme Court, in its “Haynes” decision, essentially gutted the law. In a nutshell, that 1934 act required registration of the firearms, and if a machine gun owner went to register the gun with the Treasury Department, that department could in turn give the information to state authorities.
“State authorities could then use the information to prosecute the person whose possession violated state laws,” the ATF states. The court found this violated the gun owner’s privilege from self-incrimination under the Fifth Amendment.
As the ATF states, “The Haynes decision made the 1934 Act virtually unenforceable.”
So Congress gave up, and gangsters went back to buying machine guns and mowing each other down on city streets, occasionally taking out bystanders. Because, well, guns outweighed regular citizens’ right to live.
OK, that did not really happen.
Guts and Common Sense
What really happened was, Congress in 1968 actually had some guts and common sense, and realized most Americans didn’t want a bunch of thugs spraying machine gun fire on city streets. So they passed Title II of the Gun Control Act of 1968, which amended that 1934 act to fix the flaw found in the Haynes case.
In 1986, Congress passed another law, called the Firearm Owners’ Protection Act. In part, it amended the 1968 law “to prohibit the transfer or possession of machine guns,” the ATF notes. “Exceptions were made for transfers of machine guns to, or possession of machine guns by, government agencies, and those lawfully possessed before the effective date of the prohibition, May 19, 1986.”
What that means today is that you can own a machine gun — you just can’t buy one made after 1986. You have to go through an onerous federal permitting process, and the machine gun will cost you a fortune.
About 10 years ago, I visited a dealer’s shop in Leicester, and he had a fully automatic M-16 — a military version of the AR-15 — that cost more than $30,000.
The law has kept machine guns off the streets for decades. I think we can all agree that’s a good thing.
Well, the most diehard of the gun “enthusiasts” will disagree and consider that an affront to their sacred Second Amendment rights.
But you know what? Aren’t we all just sick of this minority of fanatics literally calling the shots? Haven’t their policies, coupled with our legislators’ missing spines, led to the place where we are today?
And by that, I mean a place where every time you go to Walmart, the movie theater, or school, you’re worried about an angry human being who legally bought a few high-powered military-style AR-15s trying to kill as many people as possible in the shortest amount of time.
How to spend the tax revenue
But back to my original point, which is that our legislators are so terrified of the gun lobby that they won’t outright ban the most dangerous weapons and high-capacity magazines, or enact more onerous background checks.
So that leaves us with the other end of the equation: hardening our “soft targets,” which includes schools. To do that will require more metal detectors, bullet-proof doors, and lots of heavily armed cops and/or security guards.
I’m deadly serious about this. Yes, it will be very expensive, but as the gun lobby won’t budge, we ought to just make guns and ammunition really, really expensive, and use that extra tax revenue to pay for all of this.
Look, certain diehard gun owners won’t budge on having their rights “infringed,” even though none of the rights outlined in the Constitution are limitless.
So let’s slap a tax on gun and ammo sales — a big tax. That $200 tax in 1934? That’s the equivalent of about $4,500 today.
We sell a LOT of guns and ammo in this country, and the big tax could be a real bonanza for public safety.
The revenue of gun and ammunition stores in the United States is estimated at $20 billion annually, according to IBISWorld, an industry research company. And the market should grow by 1.9 percent this year.
In 2022, 16.4 million firearms were sold in the United States, according to Zippia Research.
Safehome.org reports, “After a record year in 2020, gun sales in the U.S. dipped slightly in 2021. Still, with nearly 19 million guns sold, 2021 was the second-highest year for gun sales in the U.S. — behind only 2020, when estimated gun sales topped 21 million.”
24.4 Million “Modern Sporting Rifles” in Circulation
In an article outlining the potential dire consequences a ban on AR-15 rifles and semi-automatic shotguns would have, the National Shooting Sports Foundation notes the gun industry “currently sells an estimated 1.5 million modern sporting rifles and similar types of guns, and 520,000 semi-automatic shotguns per year (along with accessories for them) that would be affected by various legislative proposals.”
“Since 1990, there are more than 24.4 million MSRs in circulation today. That includes more than 4.5 million in the last three years alone,” the NSSF reported in February, referring to AR-15-type weapons as Modern Sporting Rifles.
AR-15 rifle prices vary from bargain models around $500, up to $1,500 to $2,000 for higher-end models. Ammo prices vary, but a quick online search shows .223-caliber and 5.56-caliber ammunition can be had for as cheap as 42 cents a round, although about a dollar a round is more common.
What we have here is an easy opportunity to pay for a lot of school security. If we jack the price of an AR-15 up to, say, $5,000 to $7,000, and the ammunition up to, say, $2 or $3 a round, that would produce a lot of tax revenue, which could then be translated into more cops and more steel doors.
Sure, it likely would significantly decrease the sales numbers, but that’s the price the gun industry has to pay for flooding the market with these weapons of mass destruction for two decades now. Whether they want to believe this or not, fewer guns means fewer gun deaths.
I would also argue that the semiautomatic AR-15 has become nearly as deadly as those full-auto machine guns they essentially banned in the 1930s, in part because of the high-capacity magazines (usually 30 rounds), and partly because of the particularly devastating nature of the high-velocity ammunition. If you want to read a really fascinating article/graphic about this, check out this article from the Washington Post: “The Blast Effect. This is how bullets from an AR-15 blow the body apart.”
These are incredibly effective killing tools, with ammunition designed for the battlefield.
Cigarettes are also pretty efficient killing tools, and look at how this strategy worked in that field. The nation jacked the price of cigarettes way up, and the number of smokers declined. Then we used the tax revenues for anti-smoking campaigns. You know, to boost public safety.
A lot of people hated the idea of seat belts being mandatory in cars, but the government made that mandatory. And we all pay for it in the form of higher car prices.
These higher gun and ammo taxes will simply be the price we gun owners will have to pay to make up for the bad actors who misuse their Second Amendment rights. Look, what we’re doing is clearly not working, and it’s simply gross negligence to keep letting school children get murdered.
Any solution to this is going to be expensive. And please don’t tell me we need a return to “moral values” and prayer in school to fix this — the problem is just too many damn guns that are too damn easy to get.
We’re clearly not willing to address that part of the equation, so we’ve got to transform our schools (and yes, probably our malls, stores and churches) into fortresses. Every school in America should have armed guards, metal detectors and bulletproof entry doors.
Yes, there will be resistance
It almost goes without saying that this plan will not go over well with Republicans or the gun industry.
I ran the idea by our congressman, U.S. Rep. Chuck Edwards (R-Hendersonville). As of January 2023, according to the most recent federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives database, Edwards was a licensed firearms dealer through his company Second Amendment Gun Traders of Hendersonville.
“I will cease operation by Jan. 3 on firearms transactions,” Edwards told Asheville Watchdog in December. “Members of Congress are prohibited from being engaged in a trade that is licensed or regulated by the federal government.” He said he would maintain his gun dealer license but let it go inactive.
Edwards’s office sent back a statement Friday that strategically dodged the idea of taxing guns and ammunition even more.
“Like many in our community, I am sickened by the rise in gun violence in recent years,” Edwards said. “We must get to the root causes for the behaviors of those who carry out these heinous acts, provide federal support for mental health services in the community, and hold dangerous criminals accountable.”
When we get to the root causes of this evil, I suspect the sun will have long ago imploded. And more support for mental health is nice, and maybe some of the taxes could go to that, but it’s not going to stop these shooters in the meantime.
Edwards praised the brave officers who killed the Nashville shooter, saying this “is exactly why we as a nation need to make sure our law enforcement have the right training, equipment, and support as they put themselves in harm’s way to protect innocent victims. We also need to work with our local law enforcement to make sure they have the resources to be able to hire and retain the right people.”
Hard to argue with that, but it’s really not a solution to mass shootings, unless we start putting more of these cops in schools.
The National Shooting Sports Foundation has an article on its website titled, “Unintended Consequences of Firearms and Ammunition Taxes.” It makes these three points:
• New taxes on the purchase of firearms and ammunition are unconstitutional “poll taxes.”
• Unlike law-abiding citizens, criminals do not legally purchase guns and will not be affected.
• Raising taxes puts a jurisdiction at a competitive disadvantage and hurts legitimate businesses.
The reference to poll taxes is absurd, as they curtailed the most basic right of a U.S. citizen: voting. Also, pulling the voting lever typically did not cause another human being to die.
The second point is also spurious, as over and over again we’ve seen the same story play out with these mass shooters, whether it’s in schools, a supermarket, or a church — the shooter legally buys their guns within a few weeks or months of the deed. That was the case with the Nashville shooter.
Yes, this will likely cause a decline in gun sales, and it may cost some gun industry jobs.
But it will also save children’s lives. What’s more important? Money? Or our kids’ lives?
Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. John Boyle has been covering Asheville and surrounding communities since the 20th century. You can reach him at (828) 337-0941, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org