By Karen Pierog and Mary Wisniewski
CHICAGO (Reuters) - The top executive of the county that includes Chicago took aim at gun owners on Thursday, proposing a tax on bullets and firearms to help defray healthcare expenses associated with the high rate of gun violence.
If approved by the Cook county commission, the nation's third most populous county could be the first major metropolitan area in the nation to impose a tax as a form of gun control, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
Facing a $267.5 million fiscal 2013 budget gap, County Board President Toni Preckwinkle proposed a tax of 5 cents per bullet and $25 on each firearm sold. The tax would generate about $1 million, the county estimates.
"The violence in Cook County is devastating and the wide availability of ammunition only exacerbates the problem," Preckwinkle said in her budget address.
Chicago's murder total so far this year is 419, up from 336 over the same period last year, an increase of nearly 25 percent, according to the Chicago Police Department.
"Acute trauma care for a shooting victim costs $52,000 on average and 70 percent of shooting victims have no insurance," she said, adding that 670 such victims were treated last year by the county's health system "at an enormous cost." When a victim has no insurance the county picks up the tab.
Taxes on buyers or sellers of guns and/or ammunition have been proposed, but failed in six states, including California, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oklahoma and Pennsylvania, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
Tennessee has a hunting-related, 10-cents tax on shotgun shells and cartridges which applies to sellers; the money is used to support wildlife resources.
"It seems like a really good way to reimburse, to some extent at least, the government for the huge costs for all the uninsured people who are hospitalized and treated for gun injuries," said Laura Cutilletta, senior staff attorney for the San Francisco-based Law Center.
She said the proposal doesn't violate the second amendment or state laws. "It would just be a matter of whether politicians have the courage to go against the gun lobby, which will come out full force against it," Cutilletta said.
Illinois State Rifle Association Executive Director Richard Pearson called the proposal "another in a long string of schemes to punish law-abiding firearm owners and firearm dealers.
"This latest proposal ... will raise very little revenue and do nothing to stem the violent crime that Cook County has become famous for," Pearson said in a statement released last week ahead of the budget unveiling. He said firearm dealers will avoid the tax by moving out of the county.
Preckwinkle's $2.9 billion spending plan also takes on smoking and gambling by calling for a $1 increase in the county's current $2 per pack cigarette tax to raise $25.6 million and an annual $800 per year tax on video gambling machines to generate $1.3 million.
She also proposed a 1.25 percent use tax on major purchases of goods outside of Cook County by county residents and businesses that is expected to bring in $15 million for the budget.
(Reporting by Karen Pierog, additional reporting by Mary Wisniewski; Editing by Greg McCune and Leslie Gevirtz)