In one part of the U.S., handgun sales just got a $1,000 tax

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In a farflung territory of the U.S., a tax on guns that went into law this month has sent chills down the spines of conservative think tanks thousands of miles away in Washington, D.C.

Starting on April 11, a new gun control law was put into place in the Northern Mariana Islands, a Pacific commonwealth of the U.S. with just over 50,000 permanent inhabitants. Among other provisions stipulated by the law, all pistols will be subject to a $1,000 tax.

Days after the law went into effect, local Gov. Ralph Torres defended it against opposition and a potential lawsuit, saying that the tax might be "a role model" for other states and jurisdictions that are facing uncontrolled gun violence.


In the nation's capital, conservative groups have taken notice to the unprecedented tax.

"The threat of such a tax serving as a role model for other politicians to impose is not an idle one," wrote a blog post by Americans for Tax Reform, a conservative advocacy group founded by Grover Norquist, the anti-tax leader famous for getting a majority of Republican lawmakers to sign a pledge not to raise taxes.

“The Left is now seeking to tax guns out of existence,” said Norquist of the Mariana Islands' new law in a statement.


The group fears that more states or parts of local government might follow the tiny islands' lead. It even points to a few that have already taken to taxing guns in the name of public safety and research.

In Seattle, for instance, a "gun violence tax" went into effect in January, which allows the city to collect a $25 tax on every gun sale, and between 2 cents and a nickel on every round of ammunition, depending on the caliber. The funds raised from the new tax will go to research on the impact of gun violence in the community.


Local gun advocates are trying to bring the city to court, saying that it is effectively trying to regulate firearms, which is the state's prerogative. The city says it is not regulating, but simply imposing a tax. So far, an early court battle was settled in the city's favor, with the judge ruling that it was a "lawful exercise of Seattle's taxing authority."

The National Rifle Association and other groups plan to appeal the decision.

“There is no way in the world that this so-called tax is in fact a tax,” said Steve Fogg, a Washington attorney representing the gun-rights groups, told the Seattle Times. “It is a straight-up piece of regulation that is designed to inhibit the merchant sales and use of firearms in the city of Seattle." Some businesses told the Times that sales have slowed, and at least one gun seller moved beyond city limits since the new law came into effect.


In Illinois' Cook County, the home of Chicago, firearm sales have been taxed at $25 each since 2012, and starting later this year, a one- to five-cent tax is being imposed per round of ammunition. The money raised from such taxes is meant to underwrite the high costs of gun violence, officials say. Each victim of gun violence in the city costs an estimated $52,000 in resources to treat. The city has a notorious gun violence problem, which appears to be worsening.

The new Chicago ammunition tax has recently been challenged in the courts on grounds that it violates the Second Amendment.


Back on the Mariana Islands, the law including the $1,000 tax on handguns came in the wake of a federal court ruling last month that struck down the territory's 40-year-old outright ban on handguns as unconstitutional. Other guns like shotguns and rifles were not included in the ban.


Also included in the new law is an expansion of places that are now designated as "gun-free zones," including schools, daycare centers, and clinics.

The law is the "first in a series of bills" that are in the works in response to the federal court's decision, the governor told the Saipan Tribune, a local paper.


The constitutionality of the bill is still on uneven ground; even as he approved of the law and said his office is prepared to defend it, Attorney General Edward Manibusan told the Tribune that he worries the $1,000 tax on handguns might be "too excessive." A Second Amendment group is already looking at possibly challenging it in the courts.

“This is a day where we should be happy that gun control should be put in place,” said Manibusan. “But it’s not really a happy day. This is not something we want in the Commonwealth, the proliferation of handguns.”


Half the taxes collected from the new law will go to the local Department of Public Safety; the rest will be split between other agencies.

In the notes for the Senate version of the law that passed, lawmakers wrote that the "vast majority of the inhabitants" of the island oppose the legalization of handguns, as it "will undermine our peaceful communities."


"Unfortunately, the laws of the Commonwealth… are at odds with the Second Amendment to the Constitution," the law reads.

Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.

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