Gun owners dodge tax on ammunition

| Friday, Nov. 28, 2008

HARRISBURG -- Pennsylvania gun owners dodged a bullet when lawmakers failed to enact legislation that would have levied a 5-cent tax on each shell and required encoding ammunition with serial numbers and registering those numbers in a statewide database.

Introduced in February, the bill remains in the state House Judiciary Committee and will die at the end of the session on Sunday. But it could be reintroduced in January, and gun advocates expect to fight it again next year.

It's part of a growing effort nationally to target ammunition as one way to stem gun violence.

Similar legislation has been introduced in 18 other states and the District of Columbia, but none of those bills have become law, said Ted Novin, spokesman for the National Sports Shooting Foundation in Newtown, Conn.

"Gun-control advocates have realized that it would be nearly impossible to achieve an outright ban on firearms, whether at the state or federal level," said Novin. "Understanding this, they have recently turned to backdoor attempts at firearm prohibition -- bullet serialization, which is a de facto ban on ammunition, is a perfect example of this legislative strategy."

The "encoded ammunition" bill in Pennsylvania, according to proponents, would help law enforcement apprehend shooting suspects. The bill's sponsor, Democratic Rep. John Myers of Philadelphia, said encoding serial numbers into bullets and casings would be akin to creating "DNA for bullets." The serial numbers would be logged into a database maintained by the Pennsylvania State Police.

That would allow law enforcement to track bullets used in crimes much the way officers now use license plates to find and apprehend suspects, Myers said when he introduced the bill.

"If we begin coding bullets, we take a big step toward identifying those who misuse firearms and we do it without infringing on responsible gun owners," Myers said in a statement in April. "Ultimately, we make all Pennsylvanians safer."

He could not be reached this week for comment.

But sportsmen see it as punishing law-abiding gun owners by almost certainly driving up the cost of ammunition.

"Preposterous," Kim Stolfer of McDonald said about the legislation's purported benefits.

The production costs would make ammunition unaffordable to most people, Novin contended.

The bill applied largely to handguns but could have included certain sawed-off shotguns, said Stolfer, chairman of Firearms Owners Against Crime.

Nationally, such bills generally cover all ammunition, Novin said. But, he noted: "There are absolutely no studies to suggest it would work."

Myers introduced the bill with the backing of 19 co-sponsors, most of them Philadelphia Democrats. Two Pittsburgh Democrats -- Rep. Dan Frankel of Squirrel Hill and Rep. Jake Wheatley of the Hill District -- signed on.

Under Myers' bill, older ammunition would have to be disposed of by Jan. 1, 2010.

"It (made) the other ammunition you have illegal," said Stolfer.

But Joe Grace, executive director of CeaseFirePA, a group pushing gun control legislation, said any technology that would help lead to arrests of people who use guns while committing crimes should be seriously considered.

"We're going to take a closer look at it" next session, Grace said.

The legislation faced an uphill battle getting enough votes to win approval in the House Judiciary Committee, said Chairman Tom Caltagirone, D-Reading.

Caltagirone noted that a bill many figured would be least offensive to gun owners -- a requirement that they report lost or stolen handguns to police -- fell short of the needed votes on the House floor. But gun control advocates were buoyed by the fact that that bill was publicly debated and garnered 75 votes in a chamber where 102 votes are needed for passage.

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