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Taxing to coerce people to behave differently is a bad idea

So crime fighting has come to this: taxing bullets.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle proposes taxes on guns and bullets to fight crime, a higher tax on cigarettes to reduce smoking, and a tax on major purchases that local residents and businesses make outside the county to keep those purchases inside the county.

Wow, and civics teachers tell students that taxes are collected to fund government. Apparently they need to revise their lessons. As leader of the second-largest county government in the nation, Preckwinkle has made it clear she believes taxes are also collected to coerce people to behave as she prefers.

“I make no apology for this,” Preckwinkle told the Chicago Tribune Editorial Board. “As [comedian] Chris Rock would say, if it costs a million dollars to society for every gunshot wound, we ought to charge a tax of a million dollars per bullet.”

Well, if each bullet caused a gunshot wound, that might almost make sense. As it stands, it’s a funny thing for a comedian to say, and scary for a politician to quote it.

Likewise for the cigarette tax: “[T]he higher we increase our cigarette prices, the more we discourage particularly young people from smoking and save [ourselves] the cost of treating people who are addicted to tobacco and nicotine for the rest of their lives.”

I live in McHenry County. Within 5 miles of my house are five retail stores that sell guns, ammo or both. There also are two public shooting ranges, with another public shooting range recently approved by my local McHenry City Council, and a private shooting range nearly ready to open less than 2 miles from my house. We go years at a time with no firearms-related murders – without imposing special taxes on guns or bullets.

Many suburban and rural areas have gun owners, gun stores, and shooting ranges galore and almost no firearms-related violence.

In Cook County, violent drug gangs import illegal narcotics from outside the nation and sell them by the ton. Gangs with this ability certainly have no trouble getting firearms and ammunition outside legal channels. A tax won’t stop criminals who are undeterred by threats of arrest, imprisonment, violence and death.

In 2006, Chicago raised its cigarette tax, and this year it estimates $18.7 million in cigarette tax revenue compared with $32.9 million before the tax hike. More smokers are buying their cigarettes on the black market or outside the county. A higher county tax would drive more to the black market or neighboring counties or states. And if a higher tax actually stopped people from smoking, the county would have to replace the lost cigarette tax revenue. The cigarette tax is causing revenue losses as it is.

Preckwinkle suggests cigarette taxes will prevent young people from taking up smoking, even though it’s already illegal for young people to smoke, and threats of arrest and imprisonment don’t stop them from doing drugs. Some people do things they know are harmful, dangerous, and even deadly, despite taxes and harsh punishments imposed by government.

Cook County could lure back shoppers who make major purchases in neighboring counties by continuing to lower the sales tax and other local taxes. That would expand the tax base and boost local businesses.

Neighboring counties do well with lower taxes and spending. Cook County government lacks only the will to do the same. Imposing coercive and futile taxes won’t solve that problem.

• Steve Stanek of McHenry is a research fellow at The Heartland Institute in Chicago.

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