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California is first state to levy a tax on guns and ammo to fund safety programs

California Gov. Gavin Newsom shakes hands with Assemblymember Jesse Gabriel, D-Los Angeles County, after signing Gabriel's bill that raises taxes on guns and ammunition in Sacramento on Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2023.
Rich Pedroncelli
California Gov. Gavin Newsom shakes hands with Assemblymember Jesse Gabriel, D-Los Angeles County, after signing Gabriel's bill that raises taxes on guns and ammunition in Sacramento on Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2023.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California will ban people from carrying firearms in most public places while doubling the taxes on guns and ammunition sold in the state under two new laws Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Tuesday that will test the limits of the U.S. Supreme Court's new standard for interpreting the Second Amendment.

The federal government already taxes the sale of guns and ammunition at either 10% or 11%, depending on the type of gun. The law Newsom signed adds another 11% tax on top of that — making California the only state with a separate tax on guns and ammunition, according to the gun control advocacy group Brady.

The money will pay for security improvements at public schools and a variety of gun violence prevention programs, including those geared toward young people in gangs. The money from the federal tax, which has been in place for more than 100 years, pays for wildlife conservation and hunter education programs.

The laws were some of nearly two dozen gun control measures Newsom signed on Tuesday. But he acknowledged many of these laws might not survive legal challenges now that the U.S. Supreme Court has imposed a new standard on interpreting the nation's gun laws. Just last week, a federal judge struck down a California law banning guns with detachable magazines that carry more than 10 rounds — one of three major pending cases challenging California's gun restrictions.

"It may mean nothing if the federal courts are throwing them out," Newsom said. "We feel very strongly that these bills meet the (new standard), and they were drafted accordingly. But I'm not naive about the recklessness of the federal courts and the ideological agenda."

The California Rifle and Pistol Association has already sued to block one new law Newsom signed on Tuesday that bans people from carrying guns in most public places. The law overhauls the state's rules for concealed carry permits in light of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. Bruen.

It specifically bans people from carrying guns in 26 places, including public parks and playgrounds, public demonstrations and gatherings, amusement parks, churches, banks, zoos and "any other privately owned commercial establishment that is open to the public" unless the owner puts up a sign saying guns are allowed.

"These laws will not make us safer. They are an unconstitutional retaliatory and vindictive response to the Supreme Court's affirmation that the Second Amendment protects an individuals' right to choose to own a firearm for sport or to defend your family," said Chuck Michel, president of the California Rifle and Pistol Association. "They are being challenged, and the second they are signed, the clock starts ticking towards a judgment striking them down."

Newsom — a potential Democratic candidate for president beyond 2024 — has a reputation as one of the country's most liberal governors. But he has often refused to raise taxes, even for causes he supports like combating climate change. However, Newsom said he viewed this tax differently than the other general increases he tends to oppose. He argued that gun violence already costs taxpayers a lot of money in health impacts and in the criminal justice system.

"I think this is a pretty modest investment in prevention and reducing those costs, ultimately," he said, later adding, "The carnage, it's too much. We can't normalize it, we can't accept it. This is a small price to pay."

California has some of the lowest gun death rates in the country, ranking 43rd out of 50 states with 9 deaths for every 100,000 people, according to 2021 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But violent crimes have increased recently. The violent crime rate increased by 6.1% in 2022, according to the California Department of Justice.

No other state has a special tax just for guns and ammunition, although some local governments do. Tennessee once had a 10-cent tax on shotgun shells, but that tax was repealed in 2019. Pennsylvania collects a $3 surcharge on gun sales to pay for background checks. Fees on California gun purchases currently total more than $37, with most of that money paying for background checks.

"Taxing firearm sales to fund violence intervention programs is essential to interrupting the cycle of violence and stopping gun violence before it begins, and we encourage other states to follow suit," said Kris Brown, president of Brady.

The tax has some exceptions. It would not apply to police officers and it would not apply to businesses with sales of less than $5,000 over a three-month period. State officials estimate it would generate about $159 million annually.

The law says the first $75 million of that money must go to the California Violence Intervention and Prevention Grant Program. The program has funded projects targeting young people in gangs, including sports programs, life coaching and tattoo removal.

The next $50 million would go to the State Department of Education to boost security at public schools. That includes things like physical security improvements, safety assessments, after-school programs for at-risk students and mental and behavioral health services for students, teachers and other school employees.

That brought comfort to state Sen. Catherine Blakespear, a Democrat from San Diego, who said she was on the Senate floor earlier this year when she got a text message from her ninth-grader saying they were hiding under their desk. No one was injured.

"I know that there are thousands of families that are going through this and normalizing the hardening of our schools," she said. "The reality that we have to protect people by doing things like that is something that we don't want in this state and in this country."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The Associated Press
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