Paul L. Caron

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Brunson: Using A Pigouvian Tax To Reduce Gun Violence

Sam Brunson (Loyola-Chicago), Paying For Gun Violence, 104 Minn. L. Rev. 605 (2019) (reviewed by David Elkins (Netanya) here):

Gun violence is an outsized problem in the United States. Between a culture that allows for relatively unconstrained firearm ownership and a constitutional provision that ensures that ownership will continue to be relatively unchecked, it has proven virtually impossible for politicians to address the problem of gun violence. And yet, gun violence costs the United States tens of billions of dollars or more annually. These tens of billions of dollars are negative externalities—costs that gun owners do not bear themselves, and thus that are imposed on the victims of violence and on taxpayers generally.

What can we do about these costs? One way to reduce them would be to pass meaningful laws, laws that would reduce the likelihood of gun violence. In light of both the culture and the Constitution of the United States, though, such legislation seems improbable. Lawmakers face significant limitations on their ability to regulate firearms directly. If they cannot prevent gun violence, though, they can at least cause gun owners to internalize the costs. Where direct regulation is difficult, they can turn instead to a Pigouvian tax.

In this Article, I propose a Pigouvian tax on firearms.

The tax would be a hybrid excise tax and property tax, imposed at the state or local level. Legislatures would set tax rates that roughly approximated the amount of externality that gun violence created in their jurisdiction, and would use the revenue to reimburse individuals and governments for the costs they bore from gun violence. Such a tax would have little problem passing the constitutional muster, and, while it might have little behavioral impact, at least it would serve the interim purpose of making society financially whole, and requiring gun owners to bear a larger percentage of the costs of gun ownership.

Update:  Inspired by Sam's article, Glenn Reynolds (Tennessee) proposes a Pigouvian tax on higher education.

Scholarship, Tax, Tax Scholarship | Permalink


Buyers of firearms and ammunition already pay an excise tax which funds wildlife and conservation programs. I bet Brunson doesn't know that.

Posted by: Smitty | Sep 26, 2020 6:12:18 PM

"requiring gun owners to bear a larger percentages of the cost of …"

… criminals.

no. we won't.

Posted by: gman | Sep 25, 2020 10:22:18 AM


Is this a good thing or a bad thing?

How will I know an externality if I see it?

Does it have teeth?

Can I combat it with an internality?

Should I?

Posted by: John | Sep 25, 2020 7:18:36 AM

Horse pucky.
I own firearms and I am not committing any violence with them. Why don't we just go after the criminals that do cause the violence and lock them up forever or send them to death row. Problems solved.

Posted by: Andrew J Bontje | Sep 25, 2020 4:01:38 AM

The obvious problem you're missing is that only honest people pay taxes - and effectively all the gun violence you decry is caused by criminals. They won't pay your tax. And forcing it on legal gun owners, none of whom are causing the problem, will have the opposite effect and just make it yet another punitive gun law.

Trust me on this; there are numerous real-life examples. Like say, the UK, where handgun violence is many times what it was before all handguns were outlawed.

Posted by: Y. Knott | Sep 25, 2020 2:28:40 AM

This would be unconstitutional, too. It's no different than a poll tax. It also puts the burden of "gun violence" not on the guilty - who illegally (and thus would be untaxed) but on the innocent. It taxes a core civil right on the assumption the gun owner will commit a crime.

Posted by: Jeff Weimer | Sep 24, 2020 8:30:18 PM

The problem is that "gun owners" - defined as regular law-abiding citizens who own firearms - are extremely rarely the cause of "gun violence." So, taxing them won't solve your gun violence anymore than universal background checks or magazine capacity restrictions. If you want to solve "gun violence" focus on the "violence" part.
(Which, btw, "gun owners" actually do. An armed society is a polite society.)

Posted by: GWB | Sep 24, 2020 8:14:19 PM

Why should a law abiding citizen have to pay for someone else's mistakes or crimes?

Posted by: Kevin J Cole | Sep 24, 2020 8:06:46 PM

Taxing guns requires knowledge of ownership and registration is an ugly word in an armed society. It seems there has never been a gun registration program that didn't end in the wholesale confiscation of firearms. Kind of like communism and death or soup and sandwich.

Posted by: stablesort | Sep 24, 2020 7:59:38 PM

" Such a tax would have little problem passing the constitutional muster,"

Sure, right after a poll tax passes constitutional muster.

Posted by: SDN | Sep 24, 2020 7:53:23 PM

Since personal ownership of firearms actually reduces violence ( and makes individuals safer, this would serve as a subsidy to firearms owners. UnConstitutional at the Federal level, of course, and probably unfair at the local/municipal/county/state level, but that's the beauty of Federalism: states and lower political entities are free to do any dern-fool thing they want to, and citizens are free to vote with their feet.

Posted by: Jeremy Klein | Sep 24, 2020 7:50:19 PM

With such a tax, you would only pass the costs of gun crime onto some of those least at fault, while criminals in illegal possession would be in effect held harmless. Legal gun owners do little harm to society and contribute by taxes and commerce already. Nice thinking outside the box, though. Keep thinking.

Posted by: Lawrence Duffield | Sep 24, 2020 7:28:35 PM

This is a mild form of the old Roman Law that if a slave killed his master then ALL of his slaves must be crucified. Because here and there someone might do something with a firearm then you must heavily penalize all gun owners. In the meantime knife-owners get off scot free--or are you next going after them? Bad idea--and it might be passed by raw judicial fiat if Biden gets in.

Posted by: Natahn Redshield | Sep 24, 2020 4:08:25 PM

Is it "Gun Ownership" that imposes a negative externality, or "Committing Criminal Acts with a Gun" that imposes the externality? Law-abiding gun owners impose no externalities on anyone.

Many things can cause negative externalities if used unlawfully - automobiles, hydrocodone, baseball bats, even penises.

Is Prof Brunson also willing to propose a Pigouvian tax on penises, to be levied on anyone who has one, to cover teh negative externalities imposed by rapists>

Posted by: John Galt | Sep 24, 2020 3:45:42 PM

The problem with such taxes if they essentially punish people who are not committing offenses. The suburban gun buyer who passes a background check is not out harming people whereas the actual persons who are, typically inner city persons often in gangs living in tight gun control jurisdictions often with legal disability from owing arms are.

The actual solution is mass incarceration, long sentences for people misusing firearms combined with reforming marriage and welfare and jobs to ensure the culture that produces the crime is reduced.

Posted by: abprosper | Sep 24, 2020 2:37:21 PM