Most of us pay a variety of taxes that support common services. We pay broad-based taxes to support the local schools, public safety, road repair, fire protection and the like. At the national level taxes pay for national defense, emergency response, a basic network of social services and education.
There are also taxes that recognize that some activities have costs that should be carried by those who engage in them. If When I fly I pay a variety of taxes that support air safety, runway maintenance and the air traffic control system. If I purchase a bottle of liquor I pay a tax that reflects in part the social costs of alcohol use. Those who smoke pay taxes that, directly or indirectly, help pay for health care services for people with illnesses caused by smoking.
Taxes like these may also discourage activities. Gasoline taxes help remind people of the costs of driving. Liquor and tobacco taxes are known as "sin taxes" because they increase the costs of unhealthy activities. High cigarette taxes discourage young people from taking up the habit.
We are coming to recognize the unseen costs of using fossil fuel for heating and transportation. As a result there is talk about a broad-based "carbon tax" that would be largely incurred by those using oil, coal and natural gas.
This is where we get to guns. The National Rifle Association, in its infinite wisdom, has suggested that there be a well-armed person at every school in the U.S. to confront the people attacking a school and the children and teachers in the school. I gather that's about 100,000 schools. Trouble is, if we do that, a person who wants to use a semi-automatic weapon to slaughter innocents will go to malls, movie theaters, post offices, supermarkets, festivals, concerts, or churches and temples. For all the pain and anger I have after the Newtown slaughter, it's also happened in other places to innocent victims. Sadly, it will happen again.
So, if our national leaders are not going to limit access to semi-automatic firearms, we should levy a tax. I have no idea how large it should be, but it should high enough so that every school district and law-enforcement agency in the U.S. receives enough money to provide protection to every school, mall, college, church and temple, movie theater, concert hall and the like. That cost should be calculated and then a tax put on every semi-automatic weapon made or sold in the U.S. Because we're afraid to register gun owners, it will have to come from gun makers and gun sellers.
Slap a $10,000 or $20,000 tax on every semi-automatic sold and you won't need to limit the right to own a stupid death machine. People will do it themselves. Then, use some of the income to offer buy-back programs. Offer people $10,000 for a semi-automatic and most will turn in their weapons.
Charles R. Putney is a consultant to nonprofit organizations. He lives in Bennington.