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Preckwinkle defends proposal to tax guns, ammo in Cook County

Tuesday, October 09, 2012
Chicago Sun-Times
by LISA DONOVAN

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle defended a plan to put a special tax on bullets and ammunition, saying the county has to find ways to pay for the health costs associated with gun violence and to curb such violence.


“Cook County suffers from systemic gun violence,” she told reporters at a press briefing Tuesday about the so-called violence tax, which was first reported by the Chicago Sun-Times. “The wide availability of ammunition exacerbates the problem.”

Still, she offered no new details about the plan, which could bring in revenue to the cash-strapped county government which she says must absorb the ripple effects of gun violence — either because the injured are treated in the county’s public health system or the cases are prosecuted in Cook County Circuit Court, with the suspects sitting in the county jail. She also believes the tax could be one way to curb the violence that has driven up the Chicago homicide rate by 25 percent this last year when compared to last year.

Citing a report by Chicago Police and the University of Chicago, Preckwinkle said nearly one-third of guns found on Chicago streets — including those recovered at a crime scene — were sold at gun shops in suburban Cook County. She said there are 40 licensed gun shops in the suburbs and several other stores that sell ammunition.

Pressed about details of the tax, including how much it would be, Preckwinkle said: “My budget staff insists I’m not to give any numbers because they’re still fiddling with it.”

The very idea of it has prompted the gun lobby to push back.

“So now you’re going to drive up the price on ammunition for those people who are law-abiding gun owners? Now you’re going to drive up their ammunition costs?” Todd Vandermyde, a National Rifle Association lobbyist who works in Springfield, said on Tuesday.

Asked about the guns and ammunition falling in to the wrong hands, Vandermyde said that’s not the responsibility of those who legally exercise their constitutional right to bear arms.

“Well, first off – the gangbangers seem to have ways to get guns and ammo no matter what we do,” he said.

Preckwinkle shrugged off the idea that law-abiding citizens might be the ones who suffer – even punished — by a tax aimed at paying for the fallout from criminal acts of those who don’t legally possess firearms.

“Gun violence is a real problem for us — its’ a problem for us in the criminal justice system, and it’s a problem for us in our healthcare system and I make no apologies for” that, she said.

The county’s roughly dozen clinics and two hospitals along with the courts and jail account for roughly two-thirds of the county’s $3 billion operation. At Stroger Hospital of Cook County it costs an average of $52,000 to treat a gunshot victim; and 70 percent of those victims don’t have health insurance.

Preckwinkle already has said that she’s not going to hike property taxes or the sales tax, the latter of which will be rolled back in 2013, to close a projected $115 million budget gap in 2013. But the guns and ammunition taxes and more are on the table. Her staff says she hasn’t ruled out a tobacco tax hike and she herself isn’t dismissing the idea of a tax on soda pop.

When a reporter pointed out that those sugary drinks — currently blamed, in part, for the nation’s growing obesity epidemic — also costs the county’s health system, Preckwinkle said it doesn’t compare to the problem of violence in the neighborhoods.

“The magnitude of the problems we face as a result of gun violence I think overshadow the challenges that we face around obesity. There are great concerns in many of our neighborhoods about gun violence and the havoc that it causes — not only those who engage in violence but those are innocent bystanders,” she said.

While there’s no estimate yet of how much such a tax could potentially raise, Preckwinkle was asked about the deep-pocketed gun lobby, which could try to sue to stop such a tax.

“Whenever we take action in the county, there are opportunities for those who disagree with us to sue, and we just fight those suits and go on our way. You can’t make decisions on the basis of whether or not somebody’s going to sue you or then you’ll never do anything.”

While no such tax exists in Illinois, experts say, Tennessee has an ammunition tax. Guns and ammunition sold across the country are subject to a federal excise tax that funds conservation projects. In Illinois, the local sales tax also is applied to such purchases.

Two bills are before the Illinois Legislature that would impose an ammo tax. Rep. Kelly Cassidy (D-Chicago) and former Rep. Will Burns, now Chicago’s 4th Ward alderman and a Preckwinkle ally, sponsored the legislation, but both bills are parked in the House Rules Committee.

Preckwinkle will announce the county’s 2013 spending plan — and offer a final decision on whether the gun and ammunition tax is a go — next week.



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