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Smoke and Mirrors: Seattle Sales Tax

Friday, August 28, 2015

Smoke and Mirrors: Seattle Sales Tax

This week, the NRA, the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the Second Amendment Foundation (SAF), firearms retailers, and private gun owners filed a lawsuit against the City of Seattle, alleging that its new firearms and ammunition sales tax ordinance is illegal and unenforceable.

Earlier this month, Seattle passed the Firearm Tax and Ammunition Tax ordinance which imposes a new $25 sales tax on the retail sales of firearms, plus a per-round sales tax of two to five cents on ammunition.  The ordinance is slated to go into effect on January 1, 2016. A failure to pay the tax is punishable by a fine of up to $5,000, imprisonment of up to 364 days, or both.

A city report describes this as a “gun violence tax” that is estimated to generate revenues of $300,000 to $500,000 per year. The report adds, “[e]very effort funded by the revenues of this tax that reduces the probability of gun violence from taking place will save lives and money… Efforts funded by the gun violence tax that mitigate the public health, welfare, and safety impacts of gun violence will benefit this population.”

The report fails to disclose any clear relationship between expected new tax receipts and a reduction in violence of any kind. The report asserts only that efforts funded by the tax which “reduce[] the probability of gun violence from taking place” will benefit Seattle residents, without identifying the nature of the “research, prevention and youth education and employment programs” or how these programs will work to reduce the “probability” of gun violence. (The report does confirm, though, that the City will be able “to track how much revenue is raised each year and analyze the programs to which that revenue is dedicated.”)

The ordinance itself cites a 2014 study funded by the City of Seattle which reported, among other things, King County hospitalization rates due to a firearm-related injury (“of any intent,” presumably including self-inflicted and accidental injuries in addition to persons who were injured as victims of crime), and hospitalizations for other reasons. Hospitalizations due to overdoses, non-gun suicides, and non-gun assaults were far more prevalent than gun-related hospitalizations. Overdose and non-gun suicide hospitalizations each occurred at a rate more than five times that of those involving a gun; hospitalizations for “injuries due to accidents” had a rate almost seventy-five times greater.  With stats like these, it’s clear that anti-gun sentiment is the only thing driving the new taxes, not any real desire to address public health concerns of city residents.

The larger issue is Washington’s preemption statute. This law reserves to the State the exclusive right to regulate the purchase and sale of firearms and ammunition, and prohibits municipalities from enacting ordinances “relating to firearms” unless the ordinance is “specifically authorized” by state law. Ordinances that are inconsistent with, more restrictive than, or exceed the requirements of state law “are preempted and repealed.” The City of Seattle has already defended – unsuccessfully – its policy banning guns in park facilities against a preemption-based lawsuit brought by the NRA, the SAF, and others. In 2011, the Court of Appeals of Washington looked no further than the “plain language” of the preemption statute before concluding that Seattle’s attempt to regulate the possession of firearms was unlawful. The complaint in the new lawsuit refers to this decision and states the City of Seattle is “not permitted to pass laws that target the sale of firearms and ammunition through any means.”

Citizens testifying before the City Council meeting on the new tax included a recent victim of a violent felony who was “appalled” that the City was enacting an illegal tax that would force law-abiding citizens to pay for the impact of gun violence committed by criminals. Another speaker, a retailer, noted the City’s unrealistic revenue projections and asked how relocating two gun stores by three miles (outside city limits) would reduce gun violence. A plaintiff retailer in the current lawsuit asserts that if it applied the new tax to its existing sales in 2015, “it would owe more for this increased tax than it has earned in profit.”

The obvious truth is that should the ordinance be enforced, consumers will buy their guns and ammunition outside Seattle, and retailers affected by the drop in sales will move elsewhere. The only result of Seattle’s ordinance will be the suppression of Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens, and the loss of valuable businesses to other municipalities.

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Established in 1975, the Institute for Legislative Action (ILA) is the "lobbying" arm of the National Rifle Association of America. ILA is responsible for preserving the right of all law-abiding individuals in the legislative, political, and legal arenas, to purchase, possess and use firearms for legitimate purposes as guaranteed by the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.