Seattle — The Washington Supreme Court upheld Seattle’s so-called “gun violence tax” against a challenge from gun rights groups Thursday, leaving the city as one of the only places in the country that taxes the sale of firearms and ammunition to raise money for gun violence research.
In an 8-1 decision, the justices ruled that the levy fell within the city’s taxing authority and its primary purpose was to raise revenue for “the public benefit.”
The tax, which took effect in 2016, adds $25 to the price of each firearm sold in the city plus 2 cents or 5 cents per round of ammunition, depending on the type. It raised less than $200,000 in its first year, with the money earmarked for gun-violence research. One gun shop cited the tax in moving out of the city.
Cook County, Illinois, which includes Chicago, is apparently the only other jurisdiction with such a measure, according to both gun rights groups and gun-control advocates. Seattle’s City Council based its tax on that one, which took effect in 2013.
The National Rifle Association and other gun rights groups sued over Seattle’s tax, along with gun stores and customers. They argued that under state law, the power to regulate firearms is by and large reserved to the state. Seattle’s measure was properly viewed as a regulation designed to hinder gun sales, not a tax, they argued.
In her opinion for the majority, Justice Debra Stephens disagreed.
State law “grants Seattle broad authority to tax retailers for the privilege of doing business within city limits,” she wrote.
In 2014, Seattle became the first city in the country to directly fund gun violence research, City Councilman Tim Burgess said, and the results showed that gun violence costs Seattle and King County $180 million per year. That prompted the council to impose the tax to help defray those costs; officials had estimated it could bring in up to $500,000 a year.
Between 2006 and 2010, there were on average 131 firearms deaths a year in King County, according to Public Health-Seattle and King County. An additional 536 people required hospitalization for shooting injuries during that time.
Officials say the direct medical costs of treating 253 gunshot victims at Harborview Medical Center in 2014 totaled more than $17 million. Taxpayers paid more than $12 million of that.
While it’s only a tiny chunk of what gun violence costs society, the tax revenue is important in light of a congressional ban on using federal money to promote gun research, Burgess suggested.
“It’s truly disappointing that the NRA and its allies always oppose these common sense steps to shine light on the gun violence epidemic,” Burgess said in a written statement. “That makes today an especially huge win. I hope other cities in Washington now feel comfortable to follow suit.”
Alan Gottlieb, founder of one of the groups that challenged the law, the Bellevue-based Second Amendment Foundation, said the decision shows that “gun owners must get more involved in Supreme Court races.”
“The high court’s decision to uphold what clearly appears to us as a violation of Washington’s 34-year-old State Preemption Act is proof positive that the court places political correctness above the rule of law,” he said.
In her dissent, Justice Sheryl Gordon McCloud said she believed state law forbids cities from imposing taxes on gun sales.
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