Mass Shootings–Time for a Death and Injury Surcharge?


Photo: LA(Phot) Dave Jenkins/MOD [OGL], via Wikimedia Commons
It’s become an increasingly morbid waiting game. Every time there’s a mass shooting event, I start the clock on when information starts to trickle in. And every time, my first thought is, “please don’t be a Muslim.” Because that’s when the President and society goes strategic nuclear, seeking to throw people into Gitmo, destroying civil liberties, and justifying all sorts of extralegal processes just to theoretically “keep us all safe.”

If it is determined the shooter isn’t a Muslim, my next thought is “please don’t be a Black man,” because that’s when the President and society goes tactical nuclear, not quite as scorched earth as when the murderer is a Muslim, but the rhetoric gets quite vile nonetheless.

If it is determined the shooter is a White guy–and as long as that White guy isn’t a known Democrat or possibly Antifa–well…

Luckily for all involved, the President and our society won’t give two serious damns about the incident, other than throwing a few thoughts and prayers at the issue, and we will move on down the road. Might even call the guy a good person who could never have done anything like that, but maybe he had a troubled life.

“It’s too soon to talk about guns and gun control. I know the last incident was three weeks ago. Or was it one? Two? Four? Which one are we talking about, again? Who can keep track these days. Oh well, what can we do? People kill–we’re simply very violent, after all–and that’s just kinda the way it is. Gun control just can’t work because only criminals will have guns. And why are we even discussing mental illness? Don’t you know how insulting it is for you to suggest that a dissociated person isn’t capable of possessing a firearm? Guns are fun! Guns are exciting! Guns let me go hunting and share time with my kids! Guns are loud! Guns are the only thing that keeps me safe! Have you seen how many bad guys with guns try to rob people and commit murders?”

Ignore Guns for Now

Fine. Let’s stop talking about guns and gun control. Sure, countries with no guns have a suspiciously low number of gun-related fatalities. But we’ll ignore the whole idea of trying to control the possession of guns. Besides, like the President recently told tribal leaders about drilling on federal lands without permission, there may be no way to put guns back in the ground. Guns are like monarch butterflies, they flow through borders with the greatest of ease, and we should do nothing to deter their migratory paths or how they arrive.

So, let’s talk about something else.


Perhaps you have 37 beautiful firearms in your house, but if you have only one round of ammunition to share between them, there isn’t much those guns are going to be good for other than looking at.  You can certainly use an empty gun to kill someone, but you have to very close to the person you’re trying to kill, and you have to be prepared to deal with the fact that you’re going to be pistol-whipping or stock-pounding that person to do the killing. It’s a fairly well-understood psychological phenomenon that distance from a target lessens the emotional and psychological barriers to killing someone else. Pummeling a person to death with your fists is harder than using a sword, which is harder than using a pistol, which is harder than using a rifle, which is harder than using a missile, which is harder than using a high-altitude bomb, which is harder than using a drone.  Not that a truly committed person might not resort to using a knife to go on a rampage, as has happened in other countries, but the fact remains that if you give a person an empty gun, they’re not going to be doing much killing with it. Give that person ammunition, though, and their ability to kill goes up exponentially.

This isn’t to say that killing is easy. Lots of soldiers, marines, airmen, sailors, police officers, and others have very real emotional and psychological effects from taking another person’s life. But ammunition undeniably facilitates killing.

Death and Injury Surcharge

One of the consequences of mass shootings is that a lot of people die in the incidents, and, increasingly, a lot of people end up injured.

Who is paying for the funerals? Funerals aren’t cheap. According to various sources, the average cost of a cremation is $2,000 to $4,000 and the average cost of a burial is $4,000 to $10,000.  At a median price point of $6,000.00 per death ceremony, then, that means that the 33,000 people a year killed by someone with a gun (whether homicide or suicide) taxes society to the tune of $198,000,000.00.  Who pays for that expense?  The families of the victim, of course. Or benevolent Samaritans who donate to GoFundMe campaigns.  Of course, a cynic will point out those costs eventually get paid one way or another, because, apart from the Last Highlander, no one lives forever.  It just means those costs get paid out sooner than anticipated.

What about medical treatment for those who did not die, but were “merely” injured? Gun-shot wounds can vary dramatically, from grazing gashes to bullets embedded in the brain.  It’s well-established that health coverage in the United States is pretty paltry, so even a relatively routine surgery to remove a bullet from someone’s abdomen is an extremely costly endeavor, and a studies dating as far back as 1999 and as recent as 2015, suggest that the annual cost to society for injuries from gun-shot wounds is a bit more than $2,000,000,000.00.  Who is paying for the medical treatment? Is it really fair to make innocent victims bear the cost of a gun crime, especially when, unlike death, it isn’t an eventuality.

The odd quirk of so many of these mass shooting events is that the murderer will often take his or her life at the end of the event, and restitution can’t be obtained, even if theoretically. Not that a lot of these mass shooters have a lot of money to begin with. Maybe the Vegas shooter could have hit a hot streak on some blackjack or video poker and come up with enough money to pay for a portion of the hundreds of hospital bills that came out of his attack. But he’s an outlier. Otherwise, most people can’t even afford their own medical bills for routine things like appendectomies, so expecting a gunman to be able to pay for scores or hundreds of hospital bills that come out of a mass shooting event is unreasonable.

Instead, how about we do what we do when we need to build out broadband for rural areas? If you have a cellphone, or a cable bill, you pay a surcharge on your bill that is ostensibly for the purpose of helping build out the infrastructure necessary to give people living in rural areas access to broadband. Or, if you stay in a hotel in many large cities, these days, you pay for a special tax that helps build football stadiums. Or if you want to smoke a cigarette in New York City (or drink a Big Gulp) you can pay a ton of money for the privilege.

If we want to own guns and ammunition, and there isn’t any way to stop people from buying guns or getting shot, then maybe it’s time to at least create a common fund that will pay for the victims to receive medical treatment.  That common fund can be seeded by a surcharge on ammunition.

Ammunition is CHEAP

Currently, I can go to Academy Sports and Outdoors and buy 1,000 Russian-made 7.62 mm x 39 mm hollow-point rounds for $275.99.  That’s less than $.30 per round. If the guy in Sutherland Springs used 100 rounds of this ammunition to shoot the 50+ people he killed and injured (not that he did, but just using it as an example), he would have spent less than $30.00 to cover the ammunition necessary to commit his murders.

In 2009, it was estimated that there were 12 billion rounds of ammunition sold in the United States.  What if, and I’m just picking a pretty low number at random, there was a $10.00 per round surcharge on each round sold? Yes, that would mean that your 1,000-round bucket of ammunition would cost $10,275.99 instead of $275.99. That extra $10,000 is going into a common fund, though, to pay for funerals and medical care for the thousands of people getting shot. At then-current sale rates, that would create a $120,000,000,000.00 death and injury fund.  So, it’s for a good cause.

Now, wait a second here, Choate. If the annual societal cost due to gun-shot deaths and injuries is somewhere between $2 billion and $3 billionit would appear your surcharge is too generous to victims. True enough. That’s because it’s not solely for the purpose of creating a recovery fund.

It’s to dissuade people from being able to load themselves up with hundreds of rounds of ammunition so they can shoot hundreds of people in a few moments’ time.

Instead of paying $30.00 to go on his killing spree, the Sutherland Springs shooter would have had to go on a $1,030.00 killing spree with my proposed surcharge. Maybe he wouldn’t necessarily have thought that spending that much money would be worth it.  Maybe he wouldn’t be able to purchase 100 rounds of ammunition.  Maybe he could have only purchased three rounds of ammunition.  And if this would have changed his thought processes, all the better.  If a $10.00 per round surcharge isn’t disincentive enough to make people think long and hard about whether they really need to buy a 1,000-round bucket of ammunition, then make it a $20.00, or $30.00, or $100.00 per round surcharge.

A Lot Less Ammunition in Circulation

Of course, my proposal is intended to reduce the amount of ammunition lying around, and that’s certain to get people fairly het up. So let’s talk about this for a minute. Law-abiding people claim they want guns for three primary reasons: home protection, hunting, and target practice (sport). (They will never tell you that they just want to kill people, and probably, most law-abiding gun-owners don’t really want to kill people. Probably.)

Okay, well, how often do you really have an intruder in your house? For most people, it actually will never happen. We’ll put aside the question of the ethics and morality of killing someone for taking material possessions for the time being, and assume that one can reasonably protect one’s house with 50 rounds of ammunition, I am certain. So you’ll have to lay out a little more than $500 to protect your house. Seems like a small price to pay to protect your house, right? People pay a lot more than that to put security cameras on their front and back doors.

Likewise, hunting. How many rounds does one really need to take down a deer? Probably not too many. I confess I don’t know because I am admittedly not a hunter. But assuming a couple of bullets can kill a human, I assume that a couple of bullets or three can kill a deer. Maybe more for a moose or a bear. Probably fewer for a javelina or a fox.   Besides, States limit how many of each animal you can bag per year, anyway–it’s not like you can kill 500 deer with your 1,000-round bucket and call it a weekend. Will your hunting trip become a little more expensive? Perhaps, but if you’re a really good shot, and conserve your ammunition, it’ll be only marginally more expensive.

Shooting Range Extravaganzas

Avenger Cannon
By Alvis at English Wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., Public Domain, Link

Which leads us to our last topic of gun ownership. Guns are fun, or so people say! They’re loud, the gunpowder smells invigorating, the power of a firearm as it kicks back is palpable. People love to shoot bullets at the shooting range. And that’s where we can encourage people not to stock-pile ammunition..

Shooting ranges should become like driving ranges, where you could buy a bucket or five of ammunition, and you can shoot to your heart’s content. In this new shooters paradise, the rounds available at a shooting range would not be subject to the surcharge, because the rounds would be maintained and tracked by the shooting range and would not be allowed to leave the premises. You would be able to bring as many of your guns as you wanted to the range, and shoot to your heart’s content at non-surcharge pricing.

As an added incentive, and as a way of making shooting ranges the absolute best place a person can shoot a gun, maybe we could let shooting ranges possess fully automatic weapons for rental and use at the ranges only, at calibers larger than are allowed in private use. Wanna go brrrrrrrrrrrrrt with a 30 mm GAU-8/A (the cannon on the A-10 Thunderbolt II)? Knock yourself out! We’ll find a way to have one available. Wanna tote a ‘Nam-era M-60 up a hill and rain fire down on a paddock? The firing range can sell that experience to you. Wanna shoot 75 different pistols? Make it happen.

The only stipulations would be that the firing range would have to securely safeguard the firearms and ammunition, and you are not allowed to take any excess ammunition home with you. How would that be enforced?

Going on a List

If the surcharge is designed to curtail the accumulation of ammunition, then things are going to have to change. Years ago, there was a small movement to put serial numbers on all ammunition sold, and track the sale of that ammunition. Now’s the time to make that happen. (Certainly we can figure out a way to put serial numbers on every round–if we can laser-etch diamonds to make sure the diamond purchased at Helzberg isn’t cleaned at Jared, we can mark every bullet.) All ammunition needs to be sold through controlled points of sale that are tied into computerized federal and local databases.  No more private sales, no more sales at gun shows.  Approved points of sale only.

If I go on a list every time I buy BronkAid or Sudafed from the pharmacy, then certainly our society can handle the purchase of ammunition putting you on a list. And if Muslims can get interviewed for no apparent reason whatsoever, then perhaps our society can handle random FBI interviews with people who are noticed to have been purchasing large amounts of ammunition. “Hi, how are you doing, we’ve noticed that you’ve purchased 100 rounds of ammunition in the past week. Mind explaining what you’re planning on doing with all that ammunition?”

In many ways, it would be like getting a prescription filled. You are responsible for your medicine, and if it is discovered that you are selling your pain pills or whatever, you’re in a lot of trouble. Likewise, if you buy your ammunition, and it ends up being used by someone else, you have a lot of explaining to do. This would encourage proper storage and safety of maintaining your cache, and if anything did happen to your supply of ammunition, you can call local law enforcement to let them know it has been compromised.  To go back to our shooter’s paradise, if you check out a bucket of ammunition at the shooting range, you need to account for every round fired. If you get a bucket of 5,000 rounds, you need to return a bucket of 5,000 casings to the owner of the gun range. The ranges would have to devise a way to trap and collect the casings, but I’m sure they’d find a way.  If you don’t return 5,000 casings, though, be prepared to be subjected to secondary screening.

See? You’re Keeping Your Guns

I’ve not thought this plan through completely, to be fair. For example, I haven’t accounted for those people who want to amass their firearms for the inevitable war with the government. How an AR-15 in the hands of your Everyday American Patriot is really going to keep the playing field level when the oppressor government has tanks, choppers, bombers, and SEALs at its disposal, I’m not sure (putting aside posse comitatus concerns). So, yes, I’ve not accounted for the militiaman’s interests, and I’ll think a little more about how to accommodate their perspective.

And how do we account for the billions of rounds of ammunition that are already in private hands? I’m sure we could find a way to buy it back at a profit to gun-owners, law-abiding or not.  If we can afford a very generous tax cut for the top 1% at the expense of the middle class, then we are surely capable of doing amazing things as a country.

And I know someone will argue that such a surcharge will inevitably create a black market for smuggled ammunition.  Perhaps. Ammunition, however, shows up in x-rays better than drugs do, and lugging hundreds of pounds of ammunition across the borders on your back isn’t ideal. But yes, perhaps contraband ammunition will be a thing we have to solve.

For the most part, though, I think this isn’t really a bad way to approach the issue. People get to keep their guns (notice how I haven’t proposed ceasing gun sales (though ideally, sales would only occur at regulated facilities for verification and tracking purposes), and gun-owners can reasonably afford the things they say they want their guns for.  Society, in turn, benefits because it becomes much more expensive to stock-pile enough ammunition to load up for a mass shooting event. And innocent victims’ medical bills get paid for the next time some wealthy person decides to buy thousands of rounds to shoot up a country music festival.