The recent string of high-profile shootings in the US is prompting one House Democrat to draft a measure designed to severely restrict access to the AR-15-style weapons used by gunmen in the carnage. Rep. Don Beyer of Virginia, a member of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, wants to impose a 1,000% excise tax on such semiautomatic rifles.
“What it’s intended to do is provide another creative pathway to actually make some sensible gun control happen,” Beyer told Insider. “We think that a 1,000% fee on assault weapons is just the kind of restrictive measure that creates enough fiscal impact to qualify for reconciliation.”
New AR-15-style guns cost anywhere from $500 to over $2,000 depending on location, NBC News reported. That means a 1,000% tax on the weapons would add $5,000 to $20,000 to their final sales prices — and would probably keep them out of reach from many younger Americans.
Some details of the bill still aren’t finalized, such as when the tax would take effect and what to do with any revenue raised. It’s also unclear how much money it would generate. The National Shooting Sports Foundation in a 2014 court brief cited estimates that AR-15-style rifles accounted for one in five guns purchased in the US. Gun sales have surged since then and last year reached their second-highest level recorded.
Law-enforcement agencies and the US military wouldn’t be subject to the tax, Beyer said. The legislation would also apply only to future sales and not to the 20 million AR-15-style rifles already estimated to be in circulation across the US. Other guns used for hunting and other recreational purposes would also be exempt.
Bullets wouldn’t be subject to the new tax. But high-capacity magazines that can carry more than 10 rounds of ammunition would be aggressively taxed at that level.
Beyer’s definition of an “assault weapon” closely mirrors a measure that Rep. David Cicilline of Rhode Island is pushing. That bill would ban weapons with at least one military characteristic like a pistol grip or a forward grip.
House Democrats are rallying around their own expansive gun-control package separate from Senate negotiations on a narrower bill centered on mental health, red-flag laws, and a modest expansion of background checks. The House bill is expected to fall flat in the upper chamber with stiff GOP resistance.
That likelihood prompted Beyer to eye reconciliation, the legislative tactic allowing proposed laws to bypass the Senate’s 60-vote threshold known as the filibuster and pass with a simple majority. Democrats employed the maneuver in 2021 to approve both the stimulus law and the House-approved Build Back Better bill over united GOP resistance.
One expert says Beyer’s measure most likely qualifies for inclusion in a smaller spending bill containing pieces of President Joe Biden’s climate and tax agenda. Democrats hope to revive it by summer’s end.
“Taxes get more deference in budget reconciliation than other policies from a parliamentarian point of view,” Zach Moller, the director of the economic program at the center-left Third Way think tank, told Insider.
“So a pure excise tax that isn’t set so high as to end all sales should pass the Byrd rule,” Moller said, referring the rule governing what meets the requirements to be included in a filibuster-proof bill.
The federal government already imposes a 10% tax on the importation and sale of handguns, per the Tax Policy Center. The tax rate is 11% for other guns and ammunition.
Beyer said he was open to negotiating the 1,000% tax rate. “There’s nothing magical about that thousand-percent number,” he said. “It’s severe enough to actually inhibit and restrict sales. But also successful enough that it’s not seen as an absolute ban.”
There are instances stretching back decades of Democrats seeking massive tax increases on guns and ammo to make them unaffordable. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York said in 1993 that he wanted to tax handgun ammunition “out of existence” to curb crime, The New York Times reported.
Then in 2020, a pair of Democrats introduced similar measures to raise taxes on weapons, though not at the scale Beyer is seeking. Both Rep. Hank Johnson and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts put forward plans to triple the tax on handguns to 30% and to nearly quintuple the tax rate on shells and cartridges to 50%.
Those went nowhere in Congress — and the Beyer plan faces steep hurdles as well. Democrats are likely to be wary that Republicans would further cast them as tax-and-spend liberals in an election year in which the party faces major headwinds to keep control of Congress. It might also violate Biden’s pledge not to increase taxes on people earning under $400,000.
Little research exists on whether hiking taxes on military-style weapons could help prevent violent crime. Generally, that path has been used by states and cities to raise money for public-safety initiatives and not to prevent gun violence.
Excise taxes exist for alcohol, cigarettes, and soda in some localities to try to discourage people from purchasing them. But a major tax on AR-15-style rifles hasn’t been implemented at the state or local level.
“We don’t have a lot of information on what would happen if gun taxes are raised,” Robert McClelland, a senior fellow at the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center, told Insider. “But a gun tax at 1,000%, I can’t see how it would not dissuade some people from purchasing a taxed firearm.”
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