“The power under the constitution will always be in the people. It is entrusted for certain defined purposes, and for a certain limited period, to representatives of their own choosing; and whenever it is executed contrary to their interest, or not agreeable to their wishes, their servants can and undoubtedly will, be recalled.”

~ George Washington (1787)

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Another tax, firearm safety, and the Department of Health

The firearm bills, they keep on coming.  There are 17 bills involving firearms working through the State legislature. The latest was introduced as 10:35 PM on February 5th, 2013.  Thanks to a Facebook post by the Washington 10th Amendment Center, we know about HB 1703, "Promoting firearm safety through an education program funded through fees on firearms and ammunition and creating a sales tax exemption on gun locks".  The bill page is here, and the full bill here.

The good news is, admirably, the state legislators sponsoring HB 1703 want to address firearm violence by creating a "firearm-related injury and death prevention education program". Training and education is good, especially for firearms. Unfortunately, their approach is flawed, and looks to be just another source of tax revenue for the state, if not an attempt to make purchasing ammunition and firearms too expensive for many people. 

First: firearm safety is an important matter.  Every responsible firearm owner knows this.  However, it's clear that that the sponsors of this bill do not understand what that means, as HB 1703 directs the Department of Health to develop the "firearm-related injury and death prevention program".

Why the Department of Health?  According to HB 1703, Section 1:
(2) Public health approaches to reducing both motor vehicle crashes and tobacco deaths have been highly successful and the legislature believes that using public health approaches to reducing gun violence and gun deaths will also result in success.

(3) In an effort to reduce the number of firearms-related deaths and injuries, the legislature intends to:

(a) Institute a statewide educational program aimed at educating firearm owners, prospective firearm owners, and those who live and work where firearms are present, about firearm safety;

(b) Fund such a program with fees on the retail sales of firearms and ammunition; and

(c) Promote the safe storage of firearms through a tax exemption on the purchase of gun locks.
The concept of educating people on firearms is a sound one.  But the success of public health approaches to reducing motor vehicle crashes and tobacco deaths is an unproven assertion, one that has not been demonstrated or addressed in the brief text of this bill.

As an example, motor vehicle designs now incorporate significant improvements in safety features, such as air bags, reinforced frames, improved brakes, and so on.  Law enforcement officers keep speeders and other bad drivers in check.  Drunk driving laws are more severe.  Which of these are "public health" approaches?  All of them?  Or none?  This is highlighted in their "Motor Vehicle Related Injuries" brochure, where the "public health" approach is simply a team effort to solve a problem, where the Department of Health is simply the project manager, not because the Department of Health actually understands firearms and firearm safety.  They have to study the problem first.

This is reflected in Section 7:

(2) The department must identify public education efforts currently underway within state government and among local governments and private groups to educate firearm owners and prevent firearm-related injuries and death. The department must convene stakeholders and partners, conduct research, obtain data, identify needs, gaps, opportunities, and strategies, and develop a plan for:

(a) Expanding and enhancing existing firearm safety education programs for firearm owners, prospective firearm owners, and those who live and work where firearms are present, with particular emphasis on those programs that research shows have proven effective;

(b) Implementing additional firearm safety educational programs throughout the state for firearm owners, prospective firearm owners, and those who live and work where firearms are present, with particular emphasis on those programs that research shows have proven effective;

(c) Promoting the safe storage and handling of all firearms and minimization of risk of firearm-related injuries and death; and

(d) Evaluating the effectiveness and success of the program as a whole, as well as its component parts.

It's not that these are bad ideas; the problem is that this is an example "re-inventing the wheel".  Apparently the bill sponsors have never heard of the training programs offered by the National Rifle Association, and other firearm related organizations.  For example, Section 7(2)(c) could be addressed by this particular course.  At the very least, it's an excellent starting point for discussion, but is not included as a consideration in this bill.

Granted, the Department of Health would have heard of the NRA's capabilities eventually, and might have actually included the NRA in this program.  But HB 1703 essentially directs the Department of Health to study the problem and make a report, with recommendations, to the Legislature, paid for by taxes that may or may not solve the problems defined in the bill.  This might eventually turn into a program that actually makes a difference.  HB 1703 wants the report submitted to the Governor and Legislature by December 1, 2013, which means no action until at least 2014.  Assuming that debate and discussion is limited, and further research isn't needed, that is.

A better approach for the legislature would be to invite firearm associations such as the NRA to Olympia, and discuss what would be needed to implement this sort program.  They might work towards a private-public partnership that would build on existing programs and organizations, possibly cost a great deal less, and certainly save a great deal of time. 

And then there are the taxes.  Those are assessed in two parts, first as a per-firearm fee of $25 if purchased without a gun lock, and $15 if one is purchased.

Then, ammunition would be assessed "in an amount equal to one cent per round of ammunition".   The bill goes on to define ammunition:
"Ammunition" means cartridge cases, primers, bullets, or propellant powder designed for use in any firearm.
Therefore, reloading supplies would be taxed as well.  However, reloading supplies are not sold on a "per round basis".  For example, powder is sold by the pound, and measured out as desired by the re-loader.  That depends on a number of factors not known at the time of purchase.  The bill is unclear on how what formula might be used to determine how many "rounds of ammunition" would be in one pound of any one given powder.  Ask any re-loader how many different types of "propellant powder" are available on the market.

This would this lead to a bureaucratic nightmare on just how to apply that "in an amount equal to one cent per round of ammunition" rule.  Assuming that people avoid the hassle and t drive across the border into Oregon or Idaho to buy ammunition and re-loading supplies.  Voting with wallets sends an effective, but expensive, message to legislators.  And local governments supported by sales taxes.  Not to mention businesses. 

The argument will be made that 1¢ per round of ammunition is a small price to pay for gun safety.  But that was the argument made for other taxes, and those taxes have only gone up.  This is a slippery slope that is very familiar; once a tax is in place, it never goes away, and only goes up.  It's likely that the Department of Health will find ways to drag this out for a long time to improve their overall budget.

Americans are Taxed Enough Already, and if the concern is public safety, the usual bureaucratic approach must be avoided.  There are organizations already prepared to provide this sort of training, and the state needs to leverage that.

Contact your state legislators, and tell them not to support HB 1703; it is not well written, will likely take a long time to achieve results, and will only burden lawful citizens with yet another tax in a bad economy.