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Rep. Jillian Gilchrest of West Hartford testifies in favor of the bill (christine stuart / ctnewsjunkie)

HARTFORD, CT —  A proposal for a 35% excise tax on ammunition sold in the state to help pay the more than $1 billion cost of gun violence each year came under heavy fire during a public hearing Thursday.

Rep. Jillian Gilchrest, D-West Hartford, and other proponents are putting on a renewed push for a bill that’s been tried unsuccessfully before, and that would bring in $7 million annually in new taxes.

Gilchrest said her main rationale is that since there is no ammunition tax in the state, the entire cost of gun violence in Connecticut is footed by all residents when more than eight out of ten of them don’t even own a firearm.

“Why should the 84 percent of those who don’t own guns pay the same as those who do?” asked Gilchrest. “The status quo is unfair to the 84% who don’t own guns and ammunition.”

Under questioning from the Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee, Gilchrest said she was not aware of any other state that has a so-called ammunition tax in place, though she said New Jersey is currently discussing the same issue.

When she raised the bill last year, Gilchrest asked for a 50% tax on ammunition — but the legislation never got out of the Finance Committee for a vote by either chamber.

Gilchrest said a recent congressional report showed that gun violence costs the state $1.2 billion annually — or $333 per resident.

a green buttton that says support and red button that says oppose

She said the overwhelming majority of gun violence takes place in the state’s four largest cities of Hartford, New Haven, Bridgeport and Waterbury. Her bill would mandate that the funds raised from the tax be placed in a non-lapsing account to be drawn from by programs and agencies who work on gun violence issues, and the large cities would benefit from the tax windfall.

The bill, as written, Gilchrest said, would tax ammunition purchased both in stores and on the internet. She said a box of bullets would cost a consumer an extra $3.50 to $5 per box.

Gilchrest said those who work in law enforcement and military personnel would be exempt from paying the tax.

Rep. Nicole Klarides-Ditria, R-Derby, asked Gilchrest if there is anything else in the state of Connecticut that is taxed at a rate as high as 35%.

Gilchrest answered she did not know, adding that she considered her bill’s language, specifically the part asking for a 35% tax “to be a starting point,” and that she is open to further negotiations on whether that is the right rate to tax ammunition.

Klarides-Ditria said she sees the 35% rate an “attempt to punish legal firearm owners in Connecticut.”

Rep. Josh Elliott, D-Hamden, asked Gilchrest whether she was concerned that a 35% tax would drive Connecticut ammunition buyers to go across state borders and buy ammunition at a lower rate.

Gilchrest said she was concerned about that possibility, and, again, was open to conversations about what the appropriate taxing rate would be to get the bill passed.

Klarides-Ditria said she believes the bigger issue is how the state tackles mental illness not gun violence.

“Guns aren’t the issue, it’s mental illness,” Klarides-Ditria said. “We need to put our resources into metal health.” She added that if the bill is singling out ammunition, she wondered why knives, baseball bats and hammers aren’t on the list of things that are used as weapons because they contribute to the overall violence cost incurred by the state.

Gilchrest’s bill has the support of Jeremy Stein, executive director of Connecticut Against Gun Violence (CAGV).

“We support Rep. Gilchrest’s and other sponsoring legislators’ efforts to raise revenue and to find much needed funding for community-based programs working to reduce community level gun violence, that has been lacking in this state,” Stein said in written testimony.

Stein said CAGV’s agenda this session is to encourage efforts in the state’s largest cities to stem gun violence.

“There is a clear trend around the country to invest in urban gun violence prevention and intervention programs, that are working. California, Maryland, Massachusetts and New Jersey have already established such programs and have made substantial financial commitments to such community level prevention and intervention programs,” Stein said.

Stein said Connecticut has always been a leader in gun violence prevention, and as a result, maintains a low gun death rate. “However more must be done,” he said.

Funds are needed, Stein said, to establish a permanent Community Level Gun Violence Prevention Commission that he said would bring law enforcement, state legislators, public health experts, advocates and survivors to the same table to find evidence-based community solutions to the gun violence epidemic. Such common-sense solutions require state-level financial support and coordination, Stein said.

“This will get a lot of attention from folks, probably some negative,” said House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, at a press conference last week. But he quickly added that the state has “been a leader on some of these gun issues for a decade.”

As Ritter predicted, the bill has brought on an avalanche of opposition. Hundreds opposed to the bill submitted testimony against it and the hearing room was packed with opponents Thursday.

One of those who spoke against the legislation Thursday was Warren Stevens of Southington, who called the legislation a “god-awful bill.”

“It will enhance the black market, gun stores will suffer,” said Stevens.

Stevens said he and other gun owners are “outraged as we’ve never been before” by the proposed bill. Stevens said he and his fellow gun owners will make a point to travel out of state to purchase ammunition if the bill becomes law.

He added that gun owners will make remember next election cycle who votes in favor of the legislation. Stevens referred to it as not “a Republican or Democratic issue,” but an “American issue.”

“We will do everything in our power to make this go away,” Stevens said, imploring the legislators to “do something about the criminals, not the law-abiding citizens.”

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Opponents of the legislation waited to testify against it (christine stuart / ctnewsjunkie)

Also testifying was Sterling resident Dana Morrow who told the committee that his town doesn’t have its own police department, so many residents arm themselves to protect their families, since it takes much longer for the state police to respond to a call than a local police department.

Beyond that, Morrow said he lives near the Rhode Island border, and if the bill ever were to pass, he and a lot of his neighbors would cross the state line to purchase their ammunition.

Also opposed to the bill is Sen. Rob Sampson, R-Wolcott, who said he believes the committee has been put in an “overtly political” spot by the legislation.

“I have introduced legislation over the past several years that would accomplish the proponents’ stated purpose of this which is to curb gun violence without resorting to extremely punitive taxation of our state’s law-abiding gun owners,” Sampson said.

“However, instead of funding law enforcement or other nonpartisan entities to help with this issues, such as funding the State Firearms Trafficking Task Force, my colleagues insist on funding political anti-gun action groups who are determined to enact partisan gun control legislation. This is unacceptable,” Sampson said.

Sampon said that more than 20,000 current and former Connecticut residents have signed a petition asking the committee to vote against the bill.

Also opposed was Scott Wilson, founder and past president of the Connecticut Citizens Defense League (CCDL).

“Being a legal gun owner is a tedious task in our state,” Wilson said in written testimony.

“We pay for safety courses prior to the application process, and then we go through background checks at the local, state and federal levels that include consequential sums of money to obtain a permit for the ability to legally purchase firearms,” Wilson said.

“I cannot understand why a legislative committee in the state of Connecticut would seek to make it harder for people to safely practice with their guns by increasing the expenses. Our legislature should be doing the opposite. Connecticut would be wiser to make ammunition less costly by reducing sales tax on its purchase with the hope that legal gun owners practice shooting more frequently to improve their skills,” Wilson said.

Wilson said Sandy Hook created a division between gun owners and lawmakers that exists to this day.

“I truly and sincerely wish that those who seek to use the power of taxation to impede and infringe constitutional rights will reverse course and accept gun owners as decent and caring fellow citizens instead of adversaries who should be vilified,” Wilson said.