I love Chris Rock. Or I should probably say, I love Chris Rock, the standup comedian. The record of Chris Rock, the actor and filmmaker, is decidedly more mixed. But on the stage – at least, ever since his 1996 magnum opus “Bring the Pain” – Chris Rock is at his best and, for my money, one of the best there’s ever been.

Much of Chris Rock’s routine focuses on the usual subjects of love and sex, pop culture and race relations, but it is as a social critic that he’s done some of his finest work. A gun owner himself, Rock has touched several times on the subject of gun control, most recently making news for a 2013 bit in which he proposed limiting gun ownership to those who already have a mortgage loan, with the punchline: “Every mass shooting is done by a guy who lives with his mother…No one with a mortgage has ever gone on a killing spree.”

But I think his most interesting take on firearms actually comes from his 1999 HBO special “Bigger and Blacker,” in a bit that’s come to be known as “bullet control.”

You don’t need no gun control. You know what you need? We need some bullet control. We need to control the bullets. That’s right. I think all bullets should cost $5,000. $5,000 for a bullet. You know why? Because if a bullet cost $5,000, there’d be no more innocent bystanders. That’d be it. Everytime somebody gets shot, you’d be like ‘Damn, he must have did something. Sh*t, they put $50,000 worth of bullets in his ass!’

The $5,000 figure obviously is facetious (indeed, that’s the joke). But if firearms ownership imposes social costs (what economists would call “externalities”) that outweigh the social benefits, it would not actually be the craziest thing in the world to assess some form of Pigouvian tax to make gun owners to internalize the costs they otherwise would force others to bear.

Indeed, the converse is also true – if gun ownership confers net social benefits that outweigh their costs (an argument frequently made by proponents of concealed-carry legislation) then perhaps we actually should be subsidizing gun ownership.

So the real questions become: what is the balance, and if it that balance is negative, just how much would a bullet have to cost to offset its externalities? What follows is a very back-of-the-envelope attempt to calculate what I shall dub “The Chris Rock Tax.”

Among the most-cited recent works on the social costs of firearms ownership is Philip J. Cook and Jens Ludwig’s May 2005 paper in the Journal of Public Economics. Analyzing cross-sectional variation in gun ownership rates across the 200 largest U.S. counties, Cook and Ludwig found that “gun prevalence is positively associated with overall homicide rates but not systematically related to assault or other types of crime.”

After summing the costs associated with that increase in homicides, offset by positive externalities stemming from guns serving as a general deterrent to criminal predation, the authors found that gun ownership did, indeed, have net negative social costs.

All of the effect of gun prevalence is on gun homicide rates. Under certain reasonable assumptions, the average annual marginal social cost of household gun ownership is in the range $100 to $1800.

Unfortunately, as Cook and Ludwig observed, there aren’t actually good data on the number of gun-owning households in the United States, which is the major explanation for the broad range of estimates the scholars provide. Picking just one estimate, a February 2013 Pew Research Center survey found that 37 percent of U.S. households included at least one adult who owned a firearm. According to U.S. Census Bureau estimates, there were 123.2 million households in the United States in 2014.

Combining those two figures gives us an estimate of 45.6 million gun-owning households and a net social cost range of between $4.6 billion and $82.1 billion each year. Taking the midpoint of that range, we come up with a figure of $43.3 billion for the total annual net social cost of firearms ownership in the United States. This would be the figure the Chris Rock Tax would be designed to offset.

Of course, it’s important to mention that the federal government already does tax gun and ammunition sales through the Firearms and Ammunition Excise Tax (FAET). Under Chapter 32 of the Internal Revenue Code, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (the third-largest federal taxing agency, after the IRS and Customs) assesses a 10 percent excise tax on pistols and revolvers and an 11 percent excise tax on rifles, shotguns, shells and cartridges. The revenues generated by the FAET are remitted to the Fish and Wildlife Restoration Fund, overseen by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which then apportions those funds to state governments for wildlife restoration and research and for hunter-education programs.

As of Fiscal Year 2013, the U.S. Treasury reported the FAET brought in $763 million, up 253 percent from the $213 million collected a decade ago. The tax, which is assessed on firearms manufacturers and importers at the wholesale level, isn’t earmarked to support the cause of public health, but clearly, it already offsets some of the social costs of firearms ownership and should be deducted from the total. Using the 2013 figure of $763 million in FAET revenues, that leaves us with $42.54 billion of untaxed net social costs.

So how large would the tax on ammunition have to be to raise $42.54 billion? It would help if we had some easy way to track just how much ammunition is sold in a year, but those data are elusive. What we can do instead is impute wholesale ammunition sales from the ammunition portion of the Treasury’s FAET receipts. Helpfully, the National Shooting Sports Foundation reports these figures quarter by quarter.

Based on NSSF reports from calendar year 2013, we find Treasury collected $315.1 million in ammunition excise taxes that year, which would suggest $2.86 billion in wholesale ammunition sales. Retail sales are much more difficult to quantify. Applying a complete guestimate of a 100 percent markup from wholesale to retail, that would suggest about $5.73 billion in retail sales.

Of course, it probably would be preferable to apply the tax at the wholesale level, to cut down on tax fraud and diversion at the retail level and to ensure the tax is priced in even to that ammunition which is sold illicitly or on the black market. There also likely would be demands from law-enforcement departments and military agencies to be exempt from the excise tax, which lawmakers (if they ever were to consider such a proposal in the first place) almost certainly would grant.

But leaving those two rather large complications aside, we find that in order to raise $42.54 billion from sales of a product that produces a (very rough) estimate of $5.73 billion in retail sales, the tax would have to be an eye-popping 742 percent.(!)

I know, I know. That’s just craziness. But I promised a price-per-bullet and that is what I intend to deliver!

The best source I could find on the retail cost of ammunition is a site called TheFirearmBlog, which at one time regularly provided updates on market prices from major firearms retailers on a variety of forms of pistol and rifle ammunition, both for 500-round and 1,000-round lots. I’ve averaged the going prices for 500-round lots from the most recent report TFB produced (March 20, 2015) to come up with the following handy chart. It offers the average per-round cost, applies the appropriate 742 percent tax and then, in the final column, the adjusted final retail price.

Caliber Price Tax Adjusted
22 LR  $  0.14  $ 1.07  $  1.22
9mm  $  0.27  $ 1.99  $  2.26
7.62x39mm  $  0.28  $ 2.06  $  2.34
.223 Rem  $  0.33  $ 2.47  $  2.80
.40 S&W  $  0.34  $ 2.53  $  2.87
.45 ACP  $  0.36  $ 2.66  $  3.02
.38 Special  $  0.44  $ 3.29  $  3.73
.380 ACP  $  0.48  $ 3.55  $  4.03
.308 Win  $  0.64  $ 4.72  $  5.36
300 BLK  $  0.99  $ 7.37  $  8.36


So the good news is that The Chris Rock Tax does not actually require a price of $5,000 bullet. The bad news is that prices it does require – between $1.22 and $8.36 a bullet – are likely just as politically infeasible. Not to mention that they would almost certainly cut down substantially on target practice. A nation of exceedingly poor shots likely would create problems all its own.

I should note that this is not actually a policy I would endorse. An excise tax this large would be an invitation to widespread cheating. Moreover, I’d much prefer a system that matched assessments of firearms-related risks to the different levels of risk posed by different kinds of gun owners: possibly a mandatory liability insurance scheme. But I do think imagining what a Pigouvian tax for firearms might look like makes for an interesting mental exercise.

Besides, since the Dodd-Frank Act has a provision commonly known as “The Eddie Murphy Rule,” perhaps it’s only fitting that Murphy’s most eloquent protégé should be immortalized with The Chris Rock Tax.

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