WASHINGTON — Efforts are under way in Congress and at least half a dozen states to raise taxes on firearms or ammunition to pay for programs targeting gun violence.
In Congress, a group of Democrats, led by Rep. Linda T. Sanchez of California, is pushing for an additional 10 percent tax on handgun purchases that could generate tens of millions of dollars nationwide to fund gun buybacks, firearms safety campaigns and anti-violence programs.
Legislation that would impose taxes on guns or bullets has also been introduced in Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Jersey and Washington state. In California, a bill by Democratic Assemblyman Roger Dickinson would impose a nickel tax on every bullet sold in California to pay for screening and treating young children for mental illness.
The proposals are designed after similar taxes placed by federal, state and local governments on cigarettes to fund anti-smoking campaigns and health care programs.
"Anything that contributes to balancing out the costs that gun violence exacts on communities is a step in the right direction," said Kristen Rand, legislative director of the Violence Policy Center. "Like cigarettes, guns should be taxed in a manner that takes into account the harm they inflict on society at large."
Massachusetts state Rep. David Linsky, who has proposed a 25 percent tax on the sale of guns and ammunition to fund mental health programs, police training and crime victims' programs, said that gun owners bore some responsibility for funding mental health care because of the effect of firearms on public health and safety.
"We know that cigarette smoking has a significant public health impact," he said, citing taxes imposed on tobacco to fund health care. "Similarly, the use of firearms has a significant public health and public safety impact."
Currently, gun and ammunition manufacturers pay a federal tax - often passed on to buyers - that is projected to generate about $500 million this year for wildlife conservation programs under a 1937 law. The amount is expected to increase as a result of a marked rise in sales prompted by fears of new firearm restrictions.
The proposed congressional legislation is designed to appeal to deficit-minded lawmakers by offering a way to pay for grants to local and state governments for popular buyback events without adding to Washington's red ink. A recent buyback in Los Angeles took in 2,037 firearms, including 75 assault weapons.
But the proposals are likely to run into resistance from House Republicans strongly opposed to tax hikes. A spokesman for the National Rifle Association said the group strongly opposed "any misguided effort to tax law-abiding Americans exercising their fundamental constitutional right."
"The vast, vast majority of Americans who own firearms do so with great care and a sense of serious responsibility," said Mike Bazinet, director of public affairs at the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a gun industry trade group. "It is unfair to ask them to pay additional taxes to fund programs to address societal problems that stem from multiple causes.
"Let's target the criminals - not the law-abiding citizens who choose to own firearms for hunting, target shooting or personal defense," he said.
In the 1990s, then-Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., unsuccessfully sought to impose steep new federal taxes on handgun ammunition to help pay for health care.
But the idea has gained new interest following the Newtown, Conn., elementary school shootings.
In Maryland, legislation has been introduced to impose a 50 percent tax on most ammunition and establish a $25 annual gun registration fee.
The sponsor, state Delegate Jon S. Cardin, a Democrat, said the bill "goes directly to the heart of the NRA argument that says we need to focus on mental health and not banning guns," though he also supports tougher gun laws.
Nationwide, proposals vary on how much guns and ammunition should be taxed and how the money should be spent. In Nevada, Assembly Majority Leader William Horne is preparing to introduce legislation that would impose a tax of $25 per gun and 2 cents per bullet to provide money for crime victims and mental health programs.
A New Jersey bill would impose an additional 5 percent tax on sale of firearms and ammunition to fund safety improvements in public buildings, including schools.
The measure has drawn mixed public reaction, said Chris Hillmann, a spokesman for state Assemblywoman Connie Wagner. Some say it is unconstitutional, while others want a 20 percent hike, he said.