BOSTON — Gun control advocates are pushing a new way to pay for violence prevention efforts — taxing sales of guns and ammunition.
A proposal on Beacon Hill would impose a 4.75 percent surcharge on sales of guns and ammo to fund local efforts such as youth violence prevention programs and training for police to handle incidents involving mentally ill suspects.
Sen. Cynthia Creem, D-Newton, the assistant majority leader and bill’s primary sponsor, said social and economical costs of gun violence are borne by taxpayers.
The state has little money for anti-violence programs, she said, and requiring gun buyers to pay a share of those costs is reasonable.
“It’s like the tobacco tax, which is used for smoking cessation programs,” she said. “This wouldn’t be the first time we’ve used tax dollars for prevention.”
Creem’s proposal would also ban .50 caliber weapons, require that personal gun sales be subject to national background checks, and require gun owners to use fingerprint scanners for locks when the technology becomes readily available.
“I’m not trying to take guns away from people,” she said. “But we have a real problem with gun violence in this country.”
Opponents of the tax say it punishes the wrong people. Crime data show few prisoners locked up for gun-related crimes bought their weapons in gun shops, they note.
“This is yet another attempt to vilify lawful gun owners and retailers,” Jake McGuigan, director of government relations for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which opposes the bill. “It would force them to pay for crimes committed by violent felons.”
Jim Wallace, executive director of the Gun Owners’ Action League, the Massachusetts affiliate of the National Rifle Association, points out that gun buyers already pay an 11 percent federal excise tax, the state’s 6.25 percent sales tax and licensing fees.
“We already pay a huge amount,” he said. “And this would be a punitive tax.”
Wallace said the proposed tax wouldn’t necessarily affect gun sales, as state law prohibits residents from buying firearms other than long rifles in other states.
But it would penalize “law-abiding gun owners” for violence they aren’t committing.
Creem said the tax isn’t punitive. “To me, it’s the same thing as paying a toll on the bridge for using the roads,” she said.
Massachusetts has long been known for having some of the toughest gun restrictions in the nation, but gun advocates say the tougher rules haven’t reduced gun violence.
Murders committed with firearms in Massachusetts have risen from 65 in 1998 to 81 in 2014, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s latest crime statistics.
Nationwide the number of Americans killed by gunfire increased to 36,252 in 2015 from 33,599 in 2014, according to federal data, which cited homicides as the primary cause.
Massachusetts’ death rate from guns was 3.13 per 100,000 residents in 2015 -- including homicides, suicides and unintentional shootings -- compared to the 11.28 national rate.
Other states and even major cities are exploring taxes to reduce gun violence, as well.
Seattle charges a $25 tax on every firearm sold in the city, two cents on every round of .22 caliber ammunition, and a 5 cent tax for every other round of ammunition.
New Jersey lawmakers have weighed a 5 percent sales tax on guns and ammo.
Illinois lawmakers are debating a proposal to charge a 5 percent tax would on memberships to gun clubs, shooting ranges, hunt clubs and competition fees.
Many gun tax measures have been proposed since the 2012 Sandy Hook school massacre, when a gunman entered the Newtown, Conn., elementary school and shot to death 20 children and six educators before killing himself.
Several of the new laws have drawn legal challenges from gun rights advocates.
But gun control advocates say violence prevention programs are proven to reduce gun deaths - accidental or otherwise.
Ann Haafer, a member of the Massachusetts Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence, said the group hasn’t taken a formal position on Creem’s bill but generally supports prevention approaches focused on anti-violence programs for youths.
While Massachusetts has the lowest per-capita rates of gun deaths in the nation, it still has too many homicides or accidental deaths from firearms, she said.
“We are not immune to those problems,” Haafer said. “So we’re always exploring ways to reduce gun deaths in the state and prevention programs are proven to work.”
A recent study by the nonprofit Violence Policy Center suggests that states with weak gun violence prevention laws and higher rates of gun ownership had the highest overall gun death rates in 2015.
Those included Alaska, Montana, Alabama and Mississippi.
“We’re not trying to take guns away from people,” Haafer said. “Unfortunately, guns end up in the hands of people who shouldn’t have them, and that often results in deaths.”
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at email@example.com.