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Cook County mulling violence tax on guns and ammunition

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle | Sun-Times Medifiles

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle | Sun-Times Media files

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Updated: November 10, 2012 6:22AM



Drawing the ire of the gun lobby, Cook County Board President Preckwinkle is eyeing a violence tax on guns and ammunition sold in the city and suburbs, the Chicago Sun-Times has learned.

Such a tax alone wouldn’t close a $115 million budget gap in 2013, but it could at least funnel money into the county’s $3 billion operation — where roughly two-thirds of the budget pays for both the county’s public health clinics and two hospitals along with the criminal justice system that includes the courts and jail.

“If we were to pursue a tax on something like guns and ammo, clearly that wouldn’t be popular with the [gun lobby] out there, and it may not generate $50 million, but ... it is consistent with our commitment to pursuing violence reduction in the city and in the county,” Kurt Summers, Preckwinkle’s chief of staff, said on Monday.

The idea is to curb the number of guns in circulation, he said, citing a report issued last summer showing that nearly one-third of the guns recovered on Chicago’s streets were purchased in suburban gun shops. Other statistics are more dire: Murders in Chicago are up 25 percent this year, according to recent police statistics, and the county jail is filling up — with 9,000-plus inmates, nearing the 10,155 capacity.

Along with the tragic human toll, gun violence takes a toll on government coffers.

“It impacts law enforcement, both at the city and the county [levels]. It impacts the courtrooms, the public defender and state’s attorney that are in there, the judges that are in there, the clerk of the court that has to sit there, the sheriff’s deputies that are in that courtroom and it impacts the jail — the folks that are sitting there at $143 a day,” he said, referring to the daily cost of keeping an inmate behind bars.

“Now on top of that, if a person is shot and wounded, they end up more than likely in a Level 1 trauma Center like Stroger Hospital,” he said, of the main taxpayer-funded county hospital.

The cost to treat a gunshot victim, without insurance, is pegged at $52,000, Summers said. And 70 percent of gunshot victims don’t have health insurance, he says.

Just how much Preckwinkle would tax guns and ammunition is unclear. But consumers would be on the hook for it with guns and ammunition dealers responsible for remitting the tax monthly to the county’s Revenue Department.

Back in 2007, then Cook County Commissioner Roberto Maldonado — now a Chicago alderman — pushed for a 10-cents-a-bullet tax, and even proposed charging 50 cents, before the proposal was ultimately shot down.

But the gun lobby has vowed to push back hard on Preckwinkle’s idea.

“This is just another example of the blame game — Chicago and Cook County has a gun violence problem, Chicago’s got a high high school drop-out rate, they’ve got a drug problem, they’ve got a gang problem, but they want to make legal gun owners, guys like me, the scapegoat,” said Todd Vandermyde a National Rifle Association lobbyist who works in Springfield.

He said this is an unfair tax on a constitutional right that will hurt the poor.

“It is another way to enact a Jim Crow law and keep people from exercising their constitutional right, he said.

“All you’re doing is jacking up the price of guns and ammunition — for someone who can least afford it,” he said. “The problem with something like this is that you’re hurting people who don’t have the ability to get out of Cook County. So if you have someone in Englewood, they have to venture out to DuPage County, to Will County? I don’t think so.”

While no such tax exists in Illinois, experts say, Tennessee has an ammunition tax.

Right now, guns and ammunition sold across the country are subject to a federal excise tax that funds conservation projects. In Illinois, the local sales tax rate is applied to such purchases.

Two bills are in the hopper in the Illinois state Legislature — HB5167 and HB1274 — that would create an explicit tax on ammunition. Rep. Kelly Cassidy (D-Chicago) and former Rep. and now Ald. Will Burns (4th) — a Preckwinkle ally who holds her old aldermanic seat — are the sponsors of this legislation, but both bills are currently parked in the House Rules Committee.

Preckwinkle will announce her 2013 spending plan next week. Initially, she forecast a $267 million deficit, but that has fallen to $115 million. The $152 million wiped off the books comes from a combination of cost-cutting — including several hundred vacant jobs on the books — and more revenues, including the hope they can put poor and uninsured patients on the Medicaid rolls next year as part of an early enrollment plan under the Affordable Health Care Act.

Contributing: Dave McKinney



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