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Chicago's Cook County OKs gun tax to defray costs of violence

By Mary Wisniewski

CHICAGO (Reuters) - The county that includes Chicago approved a tax on firearms on Friday to help pay healthcare costs from gun violence, making it what is believed to be the first major U.S. metropolitan area to enact such a levy as a form of gun control.

The Cook County Board of Commissioners voted 9-7 to impose a $25 tax on each firearm sold. The tax is expected to raise $600,000 in revenue in 2013.

With the vote, the nation's third most populous county, with nearly 5.2 million residents, becomes the first large U.S. jurisdiction to approve such a measure, the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence said.

"We want to highlight this issue of gun violence and we also want to add to our resources to address it," Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle told reporters on Friday.

Preckwinkle, who proposed the handgun tax, earlier this week abandoned an additional proposed tax of 5 cents a bullet because the tax in some cases would have exceeded the price of ammunition.

Preckwinkle said that 670 victims of gun violence were treated by the county's health system last year. The average cost per patient was $52,000.

"The terrible truth is the people who die cost us less than the people who live, because often they live with internal injuries that plague them for the rest of their lives, and we care for them," Preckwinkle said after the board meeting.

She said 70 percent of the people who came into the county health system with gunshot wounds were not insured.

There have been 443 murders in Chicago so far this year, surpassing last year's 435, and 22 percent more than in the same period a year ago, according to Chicago police.

SIMILAR PROPOSALS FAILED ELSEWHERE

Richard Pearson, executive director of the Illinois State Rifle Association, has called the Cook County proposal another scheme to punish law-abiding firearm owners and dealers. He said it would prompt people to purchase weapons elsewhere.

Proposals to enact taxes on buyers or sellers of guns or ammunition have failed in six states, including California, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oklahoma and Pennsylvania, said the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

Tennessee has a hunting-related 10-cent tax on sealed packages of shotgun shells and cartridges that applies to sellers. The money is used to support wildlife resources.

In a separate vote on Friday, the Cook County board passed by a 12-2 vote a $2 million gun violence prevention program, which would primarily provide grants to non-profit organizations with experience in violence prevention or community outreach.

The money for the program will come from savings on consultants and outside service providers in the county's health program, according to county budget director Andrea Gibson.

The board also approved a $1-a-pack cigarette tax to help fund the public health system. That means the tax on a pack of cigarettes in Chicago will be $6.67, 19 cents short of New York City's $6.86, according to a Chicago Tribune analysis.

The board approved $41.7 million in new revenue increases in total on Friday as part of the $2.9 billion 2013 budget, Preckwinkle said.

(Editing by Andrew Hay and Peter Cooney)

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