Records: Santa Fe officials discussed ammunition tax

December 30, 2018

The morning after a 17-year-old gunman opened fire at a school in Santa Fe, Texas — killing eight students and two teachers in what has become an all-too-familiar occurrence — Mayor Alan Webber and the head of New Mexicans to Prevent Gun Violence exchanged ideas on how to avert a similar tragedy here at home.

“I called [House Speaker] Brian Egolf this morning to ask him what he thinks we could do at the city level,” Webber wrote in a May 19 email to Miranda Viscoli, co-president of the gun violence prevention group.

“He mentioned a tax on ammunition,” Webber wrote to Viscoli, who responded in an email that Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller also liked the idea.

Webber and Viscoli have since backed off pursuing what surely would be a contentious and expensive proposal — in part because New Mexico’s political climate has changed following the election of Michelle Lujan Grisham as governor.

Webber, Viscoli and others believe Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, is much more likely to support more stringent gun control laws in New Mexico than her predecessor, Republican Gov. Susana Martinez. Lujan Grisham, an Albuquerque congresswoman who won the governor’s seat in November, takes office Tuesday.

“Honestly, if we didn’t have Michelle Lujan Grisham coming in, I would say, ‘Hey, let’s look at that ammunition thing again,’ ” Viscoli said in an interview last week.

Webber said the email exchange with Viscoli in May ultimately turned into a resolution approved by the City Council in November that calls on the state Legislature to adopt a series of gun safety measures.

The measures would include the seizure of firearms from people who might present a danger to themselves or others, a law that would prohibit domestic violence offenders under protective order from purchasing a firearm, a law that would make gun owners liable if a minor gains access to a negligently stored firearm and background checks on the sale of all firearms.

“This is not an attempt to punish or stigmatize responsible gun owners,” Webber said. “This is an effort to respond to a national epidemic of killings that use handguns and other powerful weapons in ways that are decimating our communities.”

A spokesman for Lujan Grisham said the incoming governor is supportive of all four proposals.

“The governor-elect has consistently said she would support legislation to strengthen background checks,” Tripp Stelnicki, a spokesman for Lujan Grisham, said Friday via email. “It’s up to the Legislature, at this point, to craft a proposal [on all four gun safety measures] that could pass both houses and, more importantly, genuinely enhance New Mexicans’ public safety.”

Taking on the NRA

A spokesperson for the National Rifle Association did not return a message seeking comment. But the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action warned its members in New Mexico to expect “unprecedented attacks” on their Second Amendment rights during the 2019 legislative session.

“Expect anti-gun politicians to introduce a slew of so-called ‘common-sense gun measures’ — a misleading phrase that gun control activists use in hopes that the public and the media will avoid questioning the bills’ enforceability, efficacy, intrusiveness or necessity,” the institute wrote Dec. 5.

“If anti-gun organizations and anti-gun politicians make progress on these agenda items, you can expect bans on semi-automatic firearms and restrictions on magazine capacity to be next!” the group warned. “Don’t sit idly by and watch your freedoms disappear.”

The resolution the City Council passed last month called on state lawmakers to adopt “comprehensive gun violence prevention laws” or allow local governments to pass stricter gun control laws.

Under the state constitution, local governments cannot pass gun laws stricter than those at the state level.

“The NRA came in in the ’80s, and they passed a pre-emption law that says that local municipalities cannot pass any law stronger than what’s already at the state level,” Viscoli said. “Basically, cities and towns and counties cannot protect themselves against gun violence.”

Viscoli said a tax on ammunition is among the ideas that gun violence prevention groups are floating around as part of an effort “to figure out what to do with this darn pre-emption.”

“We were toying with this idea of ammunition, but then we decided in the long run to do the resolution” the City Council ultimately adopted, she said. “If we can pass real good commonsense gun violence prevention laws this next session, we wouldn’t need to go after ammunition. The climate has changed.”

Chris Luchini, chairman of the Libertarian Party of New Mexico, called a tax on ammunition a “nonstarter,” saying New Mexico’s pre-emption law wouldn’t allow cities like Santa Fe to impose it.

Not only that, he said, but such a tax “does nothing to solve a problem.”

Luchini, a weapons instructor, said a tax on ammunition would hurt the average gun owner and gun stores.

“The drug dealers are smuggling bales of cocaine and marijuana,” he said. “Do you think that it’s going to bother them to throw a few boxes of ammunition on top of the pile of drugs? Really?”

In a statement, Albuquerque’s mayor said the idea of taxing ammunition is not new and that cities nationwide are “considering a whole range of options in line with other requirements to legally possess most firearms.”

“Gun violence remains a challenge in Albuquerque,” Keller wrote. “We’ve got to thoughtfully consider policies that could mean a safer city for everyone.”

Asked whether he planned to pursue an ammunition tax in Albuquerque, Keller said he didn’t.

“We will be looking at the state Legislature as they consider policies at the next session,” he wrote.

Battling elsewhere

While political leaders in Santa Fe and Albuquerque might be shelving the idea of an ammunition tax, U.S. Rep. Danny Davis of Illinois isn’t.

Davis said in an interview with The New Mexican that he plans to reintroduce a bill that would increase federal excise taxes on guns and ammunition. The bill failed to get any traction this year.

“I don’t think the Republican-led House was in favor of doing anything, quite frankly, to curb the presence of guns as a part of what they would probably call the normalcy of society,” he said. “With the Democrats now being in control of the House, we would hope to at least get that deal out of the House.”

Robert McClelland, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, wrote in a piece published by the Tax Policy Center earlier this year that a tax on ammunition could slightly reduce gun violence.

“But the tax would fall most heavily on high-volume users such as target shooters rather than those who purchase a gun and a small number of cartridges,” McClelland wrote. “Ammunition excise taxes would have no effect on existing gun owners who intend to commit suicide via firearm.”

Davis said he agreed with that assessment.

“But every ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” said Davis, whose 15-year-old grandson was shot to death during a dispute with two other teens in 2016. “Even if we manage to save just one life, that is a tragedy that perhaps would have been prevented.”

Webber, who said he was a member of the NRA when he was about 10 years old, indicated he’s optimistic New Mexico will adopt “responsible, reasonable and effective” gun violence prevention measures under a new governor.

“I had Gabby Giffords in my office here a few months ago,” he said, referring to the former Arizona congresswoman who survived a shooting in 2011. “She and her husband were talking about a national change that they’re feeling. They’re sensing across the country that people are tired of having kids murdered in schools and churchgoers and synagogue-goers murdered in their religious … buildings while they’re praying.”

Viscoli said she’ll be working on a repeal of the pre-emption law starting next year.

“It should be the right of cities and counties to be able to protect themselves from gun violence,” she said. “We should be able, as the city of Santa Fe, to say, ‘I want a ban on assault weapons.’ ”

Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.

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