Thank you very much to New York Assembly member Pat Fahy for saying the quiet part out loud when talking about her proposed tax on ammunition. The Albany Democrat wants to see anywhere from a 2-to-5-cent tax on each round of ammunition sold in the state (basically, the bigger the bullet the higher the tax), with the money going towards community-based violence intervention groups. We’ve seen similar schemes enacted to great fanfare (and little effect) in cities like Seattle, and lawmakers have even proposed this idea in New York before now, but rarely are lawmakers so explicit in their intention to tax people out of a right.
“So, if you buy 50 rounds, it’ll be just a couple of extra dollars,” said Fahy. “So, it’s not a huge tax, but another disincentive to arming up.”
If New York Democrats do end up adopting Fahy’s bill and turning into law, that statement is going to come in very handy during the inevitable court challenge that will ensue. The Supreme Court doesn’t look kindly on taxing the exercise of a constitutionally-protected right, especially when it is designed to chill the exercise of that right.
The Court took up this issue back in the 1940s, in a case called Murdock v. Pennsylvania. At issue was an ordinance imposed by the town of Jeannette, Pennsylvania that required “all persons canvassing for or soliciting within said Borough, orders for goods, paintings, pictures, wares, or merchandise of any kind” to obtain a license from town officials in addition to paying a fee for the privilege of doing so. When a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses were fined under the ordinance for selling religious tracts without acquiring the mandated license, they sued, and eventually the Supreme Court found in their favor.
In its decision, the Court declared:
“the First Amendment, which the Fourteenth makes applicable to the states, declares that ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press . . .” It could hardly be denied that a tax laid specifically on the exercise of those freedoms would be unconstitutional. Yet the license tax imposed by this ordinance is, in substance, just that.
A state may not impose a charge for the enjoyment of a right granted by the Federal Constitution. Thus, it may not exact a license tax for the privilege of carrying on interstate commerce although it may tax the property used in, or the income derived from, that commerce, so long as those taxes are not discriminatory.
Fahy’s proposed ammo tax isn’t a flat licensing tax like the ordinance in Jeannette, Pennsylvania, but thanks to her comment to the press there should be no doubt that the tax on every round of ammunition is designed to be discriminatory in nature against any and all New Yorkers who dare seek to exercise their right to keep and bear arms. When she talks about disincentivizing arming up, she’s really saying the bill disincentivizes the exercise of a constitutionally-protected right, and that’s a no-go according to SCOTUS.
An ammo tax is also a terrible idea from a policy perspective. Seattle, Washington imposed a tax on the sale of both firearms and ammunition back in 2015, and it’s brought in far less money for violence prevention programs than supporters had predicted. They were boasting of $500,000 in tax revenue every year, but in 2019 about $85,000 was collected from the handful of remaining gun stores inside the city limits. Many FFLs chose to simply relocate beyond Seattle’s borders, and many Seattle residents have chosen to buy their guns outside the city limits as well.
Seattle’s violent crime, meanwhile, has gotten exponentially worse. There were 24 murders in Seattle in 2015; far fewer than the 55 homicides reported in the city last year. Seattle’s gun and ammo tax hasn’t made the city a safer place, and Fahy’s proposal would be just as ineffective in New York. But as Fahy herself has made clear, her tax isn’t about preventing crime. It’s about preventing responsible New Yorkers from keeping and bearing arms for self-defense.