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Beyer introduces bill to tax assault-style weapons at 1,000 percent

Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) is proposing a 1,000 percent excise tax on assault-style weapons. (Michael Blackshire/The Washington Post)
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If Congress won’t entertain a ban on assault-style weapons, Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) has a new idea: imposing a 1,000 percent tax on them.

Beyer introduced the Assault Weapons Excise Act on Tuesday with 36 Democratic cosponsors as Congress continues debating gun-safety proposals following last month’s back-to-back mass shootings. A 1,000 percent excise tax on semiautomatic rifles such as AR-15s would mark a drastic increase from any existing federal excise taxes on firearms — a proposal that Beyer is hoping could bypass the Senate filibuster, which requires support of at least 10 Republicans. Insider first previewed the legislation earlier this month.

The idea, Beyer said, is to increase the price of certain semiautomatic rifles, including AR-15s, to such a degree that it significantly limits accessibility to those guns but stops short of a full ban. The tax Beyer proposed would also apply to high-capacity magazines. And the guns that would be taxed are similar to those laid out in the Assault Weapons Ban legislation, which House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has said she wants to bring to the floor but that is unlikely to go anywhere in the evenly divided Senate.

“It’s trying to hit the sweet spot, where it’s not an all-out ban, but people’s independent purchasing decisions would be much more ‘no’ than ‘yes,’ ” Beyer said in an interview Tuesday. “You want to shift the demand curve pretty significantly.”

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Beyer said part of the thinking behind the 1,000 percent figure was to have a high-enough fiscal impact that the Senate parliamentarian would find it qualifies for inclusion in a reconciliation package, meaning it could pass the Senate with a simple majority.

“In a nation crying out for progress on gun safety, we would present a plausible way forward in this Senate,” Beyer said.

The tax would not apply retroactively to already-purchased guns and would not apply to government buyers. The legislation for now does not direct the tax revenue anywhere but the general fund, but Beyer says other considerations, such as putting the money toward gun violence prevention or helping victims, could come later.

A review of AR-15-style weapons for sale on various gun-selling websites shows they can range in price from around $500 to more than $2,000, depending on various factors. A 1,000 percent tax would increase the price tenfold, something Beyer hopes would price many would-be gun buyers, especially young adults, out of the market, possibly even on a layaway plan. Both the suspected gunman in the mass shooting in Buffalo and the shooter in the massacre in Uvalde, Tex., were 18-year-olds who used semiautomatic rifles that they had recently purchased, according to writings by the suspected Buffalo gunman and an interview with the shop owner who sold the weapon to him, as well as Texas officials.

Rosanna Smart, an economist at the Rand Corp. who has researched the impact of gun excise taxes, said Beyer’s proposal is “much higher” than existing local and federal firearms taxes or even other proposals in recent years.

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“While there’s precedent for taxation being a legitimate or acceptable policy lever in the firearms space, I don’t think we’ve seen anything like this,” Smart said.

Federal law has levied an excise tax on firearms — imposed on manufacturers and driving up the sales price — for a little over a hundred years, and the tax has never been raised, according to the Congressional Research Service. Depending on the firearm, they are taxed at a rate of 10 to 11 percent, while ammunition is taxed at 11 percent; the National Firearms Act of 1934 also levied a $200 tax on the transfer of a narrower class of guns, and that has also never been adjusted. In recent years, Democrats in Congress have proposed raising the ammunition excise tax to 13 percent, raising the firearms tax to 30 percent and ammunition tax to 50 percent, or adding a flat $100 tax to the purchase of a firearm.

Smart said empirical evidence is lacking about whether increasing firearms excise taxes affects gun violence. Most local taxes as well as the long-standing federal tax have not necessarily been cost-prohibitive and are geared more toward raising revenue, she noted. Localities or states have directed the revenue toward gun violence prevention and administrative costs associated with the background-check system, for example; the federal excise tax goes toward wildlife restoration and hunter safety programs.

A more cost-prohibitive $1,000 flat tax on handguns enacted in the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. commonwealth, was struck down by a federal judge as unconstitutional in 2016.

But Beyer’s proposal is more targeted to a specific class of guns, Smart noted, and is hard to compare to the other more modest taxes. Key to understanding the impact of a firearms excise tax is assessing how it affects consumer demand, she said.

“We can be pretty sure that a 1,000 percent tax is going to tax some people out of the market. The question is if they’re going to be able to find a substitutable [gun] that gets around that tax rate” — or if they are so determined to buy the gun to commit a mass act of violence that price is not a deterrent, she added.

Whether Beyer’s idea can gain traction in Congress is quite another question. The proposal, Smart noted, combines two of the most politically divisive concepts in Congress: raising taxes and restricting guns.

The bill would undoubtedly face fierce Republican opposition. Karina Lipsman, who won the Republican nomination in Virginia’s 8th Congressional District, called Beyer’s proposal “political lip service,” telling the Republican Standard, “The answer is not to raise taxes and think the problems will go away.” Grover Norquist, president of the conservative Americans for Tax Reform, argued it was unconstitutional on a conservative radio show.

Beyer’s staff has pointed out that if the 1990s-era ban on assault-style weapons withstood constitutional muster then the 1,000 percent tax should as well.

Beyer said that he plans to broach the idea with House Democratic leadership to figure out when the next opportunity may be to include the bill in a reconciliation package. He said the timing did not work out to try to connect his bill with the packages debated in Congress now — and noted how many of those proposals, such as raising the age to buy a semiautomatic rifle to 21, have been percolating for a lot longer. He wanted to give his idea more time.

The House passed the Protecting Our Kids Act last week, including the Raise the Age Act sponsored by Rep. Anthony G. Brown (D-Md.), a ban on high-capacity magazines and proposals to crack down on gun-trafficking, among other things.

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The bill’s future and that of the rest of the Protecting Our Kids package is not the brightest in the Senate, where a bipartisan group of senators is seeking to pair more-modest gun restrictions with significant new mental health and school security investments.