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WASHINGTON — People like to buy Bob Enright's custom-made guns. But they must buy the actions and barrels and send them to his gunsmith shop in Pinedale, Wyo., where he makes the stock and assembles the gun.

Enright goes through these logistical gymnastics to avoid an 11 percent firearms manufacturing excise tax imposed by the federal government on every gun that is produced either by big gun companies and or small gunsmith operations like Enright's.

If an effort by Montana Democratic Sen. Max Baucus succeeds, Enright would be able to purchase all of the parts needed to build a gun and then assemble it.

"We know what qualifies as making guns and we do what we can to avoid dealing with the federal government," Enright said. "If that tax was eliminated it would be great; then I could buy the actions and barrels. It would give me some leeway."

The elimination of the 11 percent tax on companies that produce 50 or fewer guns a year is one of several provisions aiming to help small businesses in the West that Baucus has tucked into the Senate's $350 billion tax bill.

Another provision would eliminate a $250 annual tax on businesses selling alcohol. The tax, which applies to businesses from Wal-Mart to local bars, adds about $125 million annually to the federal treasury.

Although the tax barely registers with large companies, Baucus says the tax needs to be eliminated because it is burden on small businesses. The tax was instituted more than 200 years ago, was repealed in 1817, and then put back on the books in the 1860s to generate revenue for the Civil War.

Baucus is the top Democrat on the Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over tax issues, and has staunchly opposed President Bush's effort to secure a $726 billion tax cut. He says that it would not do enough to help small businesses like Enright's.

"I am in favor of small business tax cuts because they will do more for states like Montana where we don't have large manufacturing operations," said Livingston gunsmith Steven Dodd Hughes. "Anything that encourages small business is a good thing."

Since 1977, Hughes has been pushing legislation to exempt small companies from the 11 percent tax.

"I am optimistic that Baucus will not let this go," Hughes said. "He has personally assured me that he will not let this go."

Both Enright and Hughes learned the profession of building guns because it gave them the opportunity to be self-employed and live in small communities in the West.

"There a lot of us (gunsmiths) in the state," Enright said. "We live here because we like the country, but it's hard to make a living."

Ron Fix, who owns The River Grille in Helena, supports the provision to eliminate the $250 tax on businesses that sell alcohol, but would also like to see the Senate pass Bush's large tax cut.

Fix, who describes himself as "a card-carrying Republican" and says he would never vote for Baucus, said, "I would absolutely like to see the president's tax plan pass."

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