By LUCINDA M. FINLEY and JOHN G. CULHANE
GUN manufacturers have gone to great lengths to avoid any moral responsibility or legal accountability for the social costs of gun violence — the deaths and injuries of innocent victims, families torn apart, public resources spent on gun-related crime and medical expenses incurred.
But there is a simple and direct way to make them accountable for the harm their products cause. For every gun sold, those who manufacture or import it should pay a tax. The money should then be used to create a compensation fund for innocent victims of gun violence.
This proposal is based on a fundamentally conservative principle — that those who cause injury should be made to “internalize” the cost of their activity by paying for it. Now, gun manufacturers and sellers are mostly protected from lawsuits by federal law.
As it happens, a model for this approach already exists. Under the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, those injured by vaccines are eligible for compensation from a fund financed by an excise tax on the sale of every dose of vaccine. In creating this no-fault system in the 1980s, Congress sought to provide care for those injured by vaccines while protecting manufacturers from undue litigation.
Vaccines are essential for public health but inevitably cause harm to a small number of people. Since all of us benefit from a vaccinated population, the compensation program spreads the costs when things go wrong to everyone who received a vaccination, rather than leaving the injured and their families to bear the cost. It also avoids the time, expense and inefficiencies of litigation, and dispenses with the need to prove fault. The compensation fund thus ensures that vaccine manufacturers will remain in the market rather than being forced out by the prospect of huge legal judgments against them.
Guns, of course, are not essential for public health. But Congress has made painfully clear that it values the largely unfettered ownership of guns and their manufacture — despite the social costs of the violence that results when guns work as designed. For that reason, it makes sense to tax gun manufacturers directly. The result would be that those who derive a benefit from guns — for hunting, target practice, self-defense or simply for collecting — would shoulder some of the social costs of their choice as manufacturers pass along the cost of the tax to them.
Such a tax might also exert at least some economic pressure on manufacturers to market especially lethal guns less aggressively, or to implement safer gun technologies, like “smart guns” that could be used only by the registered owner. Right now, they have no such incentive — they’re immune from most lawsuits, and guns are expressly exempt from regulation by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which is supposed to protect the public from unreasonable risks from consumer products. (Thus, the commission can ban lawn darts or cork guns, but not real firearms.)
Since safer guns would mean fewer compensable injuries or deaths, the tax should be adjustable, rising when injuries and deaths increase, and falling when they decrease. The tax rate could also be adjusted to reflect the relative lethality of guns. Those guns that are most often used to kill or maim the largest number of people could be taxed at a higher rate, while guns used primarily for hunting or sport that are much less often involved in fatalities or injuries would be taxed at a lower rate.
Gun makers know that their products are lethal, and sometimes used illegally. They know that some of their dealers’ sales practices contribute to guns’ falling into criminal hands. They know that each year a significant number of innocent people will be killed or maimed by the use of guns. But quite often, the shooters themselves cannot be held fully or even partially accountable, financially, because they are unknown, destitute or dead.
A serious discussion will be required about the amount of compensation, and whether victims’ family members would also be entitled to recover from the fund. These important conversations about eligibility and amounts are common to all compensation funds. Just as these questions have been and will be tackled for these other funds, they can be thoughtfully and carefully worked out for this one.
Some of the victims of recent mass shootings — including the massacres at Aurora, Colo., Newtown, Conn., and Virginia Tech, as well as those who survived the 9/11 attack — have recently banded together to ask Congress to enact a National Compassion Fund, to make sure that charitable donations get to their victims rather than being swallowed up in administrative costs.
That’s a good idea, but it is not enough. Gun manufacturers should pony up. A national tax on the sale of guns is the way to do that.