WASHINGTON -- Demanding action to stop the country's epidemic of violence, a powerful Senate chairman declared yesterday that his panel would make handgun control an integral part of health care reform by drastically increasing the tax on bullets.
Finance Committee Chairman Daniel Patrick Moynihan said the panel would build into health reform legislation such a huge increase in ammunition taxes that the most destructive types of bullets would effectively be taxed "out of existence."
The New York Democrat introduced a measure yesterday -- which he would incorporate into a health care reform bill later on -- that would impose a 100-fold increase in the tax on certain bullets and a 50 percent tax on all other handgun ammunition, with the exception of .22 caliber rimfire bullets used in target shooting. The current tax is 11 percent of the manufacturers' ammunition price.
His legislation also would slap a $10,000 "occupational tax" on manufacturers and importers of handgun ammunition.
The proposal drew immediate fire from the National Rifle Association, and a tepid response from the Clinton administration.
Mr. Moynihan said he believed the new taxes could raise as much as $1 billion. The current federal tax on ammunition, combined with federal taxes on handguns, shotguns and rifles, generated $143 million in 1992, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
But the senator said his major goal was not to raise revenue but to tax "out of existence" ammunition "which has the sole purpose destroying bodies."
Although several lawmakers have expressed interest in making gun or ammunition taxes part of a health reform bill, Mr. Moynihan is the first chairman to declare that his committee would do so.
Such a step would put into law the connection that President Clinton and many officials are making between health care and violence.
"The purpose of this legislation is to bring the cost of ammunition in line with the costs it imposes on our society," said Mr. Moynihan, a long-time advocate of gun control. "Handgun ammunition is used to kill more than 24,000 Americans each year. . . . It seems to me we must view the public health impact of bullets -- death and injury -- much as we view an epidemic."
Mr. Clinton strongly considered including an ammunition tax in his health care reform legislation, then backed away to avoid making the bill more controversial than it already is. But the administration has sent supportive signals to lawmakers who want such a tax. Last month, Hillary Rodham Clinton told lawmakers that she favored a tax on guns and ammunition.
Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen told Mr. Moynihan that "we're willing to look" at increased taxes and fees but would not elaborate. A White House spokeswoman refused to comment further.
Mr. Moynihan faces a fight from the influential gun lobby. An NRA spokesman, Bill McIntyre, said Mr. Moynihan's tax amounts to "inflating the cost of self-defense."
"Law-abiding firearms owners are the most likely group who would be buying this ammunition and paying the taxes," Mr. McIntyre said. "Criminals would not."
Mr. Moynihan announced his plan during a committee hearing at which Mr. Bentsen testified on the costs of the president's health care reform legislation. "I feel very strongly" about increasing the tax, Mr. Moynihan said, "and I cannot imagine" a reform bill "coming out of the committee without this."
His panel has jurisdiction over tax issues and will have a major role in shaping health reform legislation.
The largest tax would fall on all .50-caliber bullets and the Winchester "Black Talon" 9mm bullet, whose power is such that some police officers in Maryland have called for a ban on its sale to the public. The Baltimore County police department uses Black Talon bullets.
But officials at Olin Corp.'s Winchester Division in Illinois took issue with Mr. Moynihan's singling out of the Black Talon. "We feel like it's just another bullet [among] high-performance . . . bullets," said Mike Jordan, a company manager.
The bullet, one of the company's best sellers, has greater stopping power than many other handgun bullets and is designed not to fragment when striking a target, he said. This is advantageous to police, who don't want bullets they shoot to pass through a suspect and strike a bystander, he added.
But the bullet is extremely destructive to human tissue, a characteristic described in a gun magazine cited by Mr. Moynihan. "The Talon expands to expose razor-sharp reinforced jacket petals," said Handguns for Sport & Defense Magazine, and "penetrates soft tissue like a throwing star," a sharp-edged multi-pointed weapon. "Very nasty," the magazine concluded. "A real improvement in handgun ammo."