Gun License Fees and the Right to Keep and Bear Arms for Self-Defense

After McDonald, and the newly enacted Chicago handgun ordinance, people are again turning to whether and when gun license fees are unconstitutional. I’ve heard some argue that under existing constitutional rules applicable to other rights — especially the First Amendment — any fee for the exercise of a constitutional right is per se unconstitutional. But rightly or wrongly, that turns out not to be the case. Here’s an excerpt from my Implementing the Right to Keep and Bear Arms in Self-Defense article, with most of the citations omitted; see PDF pp. 100-102 to find all the citations.

Taxes on guns and ammunition … would be substantial burdens [which I argue should be unconstitutional -EV] if they materially raised the cost of armed self-defense. A $600 tax proposed by Cook, Ludwig & Samaha, justified by an assertion that “keeping a handgun in the home is associated with at least $600 per year in externalities,” is one such example. “The poorly financed [self-defense] of little people,” like their “poorly financed causes,” deserves constitutional protection as much as the self-defense of those who can afford technologically sophisticated new devices or high new taxes. (See Martin v. City of Struthers, 319 U.S. 141, 146 (1943) (striking down ban on door-to-door solicitation, partly on the grounds that “[d]oor to door distribution of circulars is essential to the poorly financed causes of little people”); see also City of Ladue v. Gilleo, 512 U.S. 43, 56 (1994) (striking down ban on display of signs at one’s home, partly on the grounds that “[r]esidential signs are an unusually cheap and convenient form of communication. Especially for persons of modest means or limited mobility, a yard or window sign may have no practical substitute.”).) This is true whether the tax … is imposed on gun owners directly, or on gun sellers or manufacturers, just as a restriction on abortion can be a substantial burden even if it’s imposed on doctors and not on the women who are getting the abortions.

High gun taxes should remain presumptively impermissible even if they are based on some (doubtless controversially calculated) estimate of the public costs imposed by the average handgun: The average takes into account both the very low cost stemming from guns that are always properly used by their owners, and the very high cost stemming from guns that are used in crime. The law-abiding owners thus are not just being required to “internalize the full social costs of their choices,” even if you take into account as a “cost” the possibility that any gun will be stolen by a criminal. They are also being required to internalize the social costs of choices made by criminal users of other guns — much as if, for instance, all speakers were charged a tax that would be used to compensate those libeled by a small subset of speakers.

Nonetheless, some modest taxes might not amount to substantial burdens, as a review of taxes and fees on other constitutional rights illustrates. Taxes based on the content of speech are unconstitutional, regardless of their magnitude. But this is a special case of the principle that discrimination based on certain kinds of characteristics — race, sex, religiosity, or the content or viewpoint of speech — is unconstitutional. Setting aside these special areas of constitutionally forbidden discrimination, and setting aside poll taxes, which were constitutional until the Twenty-Fourth Amendment forbade them, other kinds of taxes, fees, and indirect costs imposed on the exercise of constitutional rights are often permissible.

The government may require modest content-neutral fees for demonstration permits or charitable fundraising permits, at least if the fees are tailored to defraying the costs of administering constitutionally permissible regulatory regimes. E.g., Sullivan v. City of Augusta, 511 F.3d 16, 35–36 (1st Cir. 2007) (demonstrations); National Awareness Found. v. Abrams, 50 F.3d 1159, 1167 (2d Cir. 1995) (charitable fundraising); Stonewall Union v. City of Columbus, 931 F.2d 1130, 1137 (6th Cir. 1991) (demonstrations).

The same is true for marriage license fees and filing fees for political candidates (though the Court has held that the right to run for office is protected by the First Amendment). E.g., Boynton v. Kusper, 494 N.E.2d 135, 138 (Ill. 1986) (striking down a $10 tax on marriage licenses, aimed at funding services for victims of domestic violence, but stressing in dictum that this part of the license fee “has no relation to the county clerk’s service of issuing, sealing, filing, or recording the marriage license”); D’Antoni v. Comm’r, N.H. Dep’t of Health & Human Servs., 917 A.2d 177, 183 (N.H. 2006) (upholding a $38 marriage license fee because the fee was less than the “incidental expenses related to issuing the licenses”).The same is doubtless true of costs involved in getting permits to build on your own property, a right protected by the Takings Clause….

At the same time, when a cost is high enough to impose a substantial obstacle to the exercise of a right for a considerable number of people, it is unconstitutional. This is likely also true when a cost goes materially beyond the cost of administering the otherwise permissible regulatory scheme, as several federal circuit court cases hold and some U.S. Supreme Court cases suggest. See, e.g., Sullivan v. City of Augusta, 511 F.3d 16, 38 (1st Cir. 2007); [ACLU v. White, 692 F.Supp.2d 986 (N.D. Ill. 2010) (striking down $1000 registration fee for lobbyists because “legislative lobbying is an activity protected by the First Amendment, and a state may only charge a fee as a precondition for lobbying where that fee is ‘calculated to defray the expense’ of lobbying regulation”)]. And if a law substantially burdens rightholders who are relatively poor, an exemption would likely be constitutionally required, as it has been with regard to permit fees for speakers and candidates. See Lubin v. Panish, 415 U.S. 709, 718–19 (1974) (requiring exemption from filing fee for indigent political candidates); Cent. Fla. Nuclear Freeze Campaign v. Walsh, 774 F.2d 1515, 1523 (11th Cir. 1985) (same as to demonstration permit fee).

I acknowledge that any such regime necessarily creates linedrawing problems and poses the danger that a genuinely substantial burden will be missed by judges who are deciding how much is too much. But, first, there is ample precedent for such tolerance for modest fees in other constitutional rights contexts, and it seems neither likely nor normatively appealing for the courts to conclude that the right to bear arms is more protected than these other rights. Second, the caselaw from those other areas can provide guideposts for the linedrawing process. And third, the caselaw from those other areas (as well as the general logic of the substantial burden threshold) can provide justification for a constitutional requirement that poor applicants be exempted from fees — say, fees that dramatically increase the cost of a new gun, or that are required for periodic reregistration of an old gun — that are substantial for them even if relatively minor for others.