Defeat the Colorado Gun Tax!

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Defeat the Colorado Gun Tax!

by Ari Armstrong, March 5, 2003

The right of self-defense, which entails the right to keep and bear arms, is a fundamental human right properly infringed by no legislature. The right to bear arms is recognized by both the U.S. and Colorado constitutions. The notion of imposing a special tax on a fundamental right is repugnant and hostile to the principles of a free society.

Yet the Colorado legislature is considering the imposition of just such a tax.

According to a March 4 Denver Post article by Julia Martinez,

Gun buyers would be saddled with a $10 fee for criminal background checks under a recommendation from the legislature's budget committee. The six legislators decided Monday [March 3] that the state cannot afford to pay for the background checks. The fee would be expected to raise enough of the $1.7 million that taxpayers would otherwise pay to keep the checks' waiting times near five minutes.

In other words, the Colorado legislature first imposed an expanded gun-owner registration scheme on Colorado citizens, and now it wants to force gun owners to pay for the treatment. It is a brazen government indeed that forces select citizens to pay for the "privilege" of being catalogued for the pleasure of national bureaucrats.

Of course, the budget crunch is just an excuse to impose the new tax. As Martinez' article points out, "Other options were to eliminate the program and return checks to the FBI or reduce funding." Federal statutes force gun owners to fill out registration papers every time they buy a gun from a licensed dealer, but Colorado statutes force a redundant CBI check that wrongly denies more people their right to buy a gun than the federal system does.

The "five minute" wait cited is how long it takes most buyers to go through the check. However, for the unlucky few for whom faulty or incomplete records are kept, the purchase is denied indefinitely. Some in imminent danger of attack are left disarmed, in violation of the state and federal constitutions. Martinez continues, "[State Senator Ron] Teck [R-Grand Junction] said he had received calls from gun shop dealers and others concerned that waits had already increased from the average of five minutes due to cuts in the CBI staff that conducts the checks."

That is the rub, isn't it? When a right is denigrated to a mere privilege, it is up to the whims of the state how the privilege is exercised.

Martinez also explains why the committee suggested a fee of $10 rather than $14.80: "Teck said he thought it was too big a psychological jump for buyers." He told Martinez, "If we go from zero to $14.80, we will have problems." Never a more stark recognition of the "boiled frog" syndrome has ever crossed the lips of a politician. If the legislature strips people's rights away too quickly, they will revolt. Far better to turn up the heat slowly so the masses barely notice they've lost their rights.

A $10 fee is itself onerous. A new tax of even a penny establishes the precedent and further subverts a fundamental right into a privilege handed down by the politicians. Whereas a quality defensive firearm will cost several hundred dollars, the poor in need of basic protection can make do spending less. A $10 fee, then, will add a significant burden to poor people who wish to acquire a tool for self-defense and, on the margin, price some poor people out of the market. And many poor people in need of protection, unlike more wealthy gun owners, are less likely to have established social networks to swap guns outside the Brady registration system.

Already the legislature admits it eventually wants to raise the fee. When people are ready for the "psychological jump." And as history has shown over and over, "the power to tax is the power to destroy." A universalized Brady registration system, coupled with a high registration tax, could eventually establish a de facto gun ban.

The most notorious example of an abused tax is the poll tax, imposed in the south to keep blacks from voting:

Although no longer a significant source of revenue for any major country, the poll tax did provide large sums for many governments until well into the 1800s. The tax has long been attacked as being an unfair burden upon those less able to pay. In the United States, the poll tax has been connected with voting rights. Poll taxes enacted in Southern states between 1889 and 1910 had the effect of disenfranchising many blacks as well as poor whites, because payment of the tax was a prerequisite for voting. By the 1940s some of these taxes had been abolished, and in 1964 the 24th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution disallowed the poll tax as a prerequisite for voting in federal elections. In 1966 this prohibition was extended to all elections by the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that such a tax violated the "equal protection" clause of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. In 1990, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of Great Britain introduced a poll tax with exemptions for people with low incomes or disabilities. The measure was extremely unpopular and played a role in her replacement as prime minister later that year. (http://www.infoplease.com/ce6/history/A0839551.html)

If it is wrong to tax people as a requirement for voting, it is more obviously wrong to tax them as a requirement for buying a gun. Voting is a political right dependent on the structures of governance of the age, whereas self-defense is a fundamental human right independent of any particular political arrangement. A gun tax is no less offensive than a book tax would be.

In the U.S., taxes on certain types of guns have led to the near banning of those guns, granting only very wealthy enthusiasts willing to undergo extensive scrutiny by national bureaucrats the privilege of buying them. "The National Firearms Act of 1934 was the first federal statute ever passed that restricted the keeping and bearing of arms, and the statute taxed and required the registration of certain types of firearms" (Stephen Halbrook, That Every Man Be Armed, p. 165).

In another policy arena, all drugs were legal 150 years ago and they were not associated with problems like violent criminal markets or dangerous impurities. National drug prohibition began as tax measures (Judge James P. Gray, Why Our Drug Laws Have Failed and What We Can Do About It, pp. 22, 25). Some might reply that ingesting certain drugs is not a right and may therefore be specially taxed. Similarly, others are sure to argue that gun ownership is not a right and may therefore be taxed out of existence.

As David Kopel notes, "Throughout the waiting period debate of 1988-93, the National Rifle Association had always argued for the instant check as the proper alternative to Brady" (Guns: Who Should Have Them, p. 54). As we are now learning, even so-called "instant" Brady gun-owner registrations degrade the right to keep and bear arms to a privilege that will always be prone to political abuse. It's bad enough Colorado citizens are forced to register with the national government before they can buy a gun from a licensed dealer. Now some Colorado legislators want to add to that injury the insult of having to pay for the abuse.

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