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Seattle’s Gun Tax: A Textbook Case on the Law of Inverse Consequences

Monday, March 27, 2023

Seattle’s Gun Tax: A Textbook Case on the Law of Inverse Consequences

The law of inverse or unintended consequences refers to outcomes that are the reverse of the planned or expected results. As described in another context, “the law of unintended consequences could create a perverse effect contrary to what was originally intended and ultimately making the problem worse.”

Back in 2015, Pete Holmes, the then City Attorney, wrote about Seattle’s “inventive” new way to address violent crime. “In a Seattle summer marred by random gunfire, the City Council unanimously approved, and Mayor Ed Murray signed, the ordinance that, come January [2016], will levy a $25 tax on businesses for each firearm sold at retail within City limits to provide a sustained local revenue source for research and prevention programs. In addition, the City will impose a 2-cent tax for every round of .22 caliber ammunition sold and a 5-cent tax for every other round of ammunition sold.” Describing this so-called “common sense step designed to reduce gun violence,” Holmes said, “This City acted to control its own destiny.”

At the time the ordinance was passed, the City Budget Office estimated that the gun tax would generate revenue of “between $300,000 and $500,000 a year.”

Seattle Police Department data on crime shows there were 3,830 violent crime incidents in 2015, of which 26 were homicides. Violent crime incidents have increased each year since, reaching 5,630 in 2022 (including 52 homicides). The department’s most recent  annual report reveals that Seattle’s overall violent crime rate reached a 15-year high in 2022, with homicides up by 24% and aggravated assaults (including shots fired and non-fatal shootings) “continu[ing] to be the highest reported in the last 10 years.”

Analyzing the numbers for shootings and shots fired specifically, police data for 2015 indicates there were 54 “shots fired” incidents, 16 shootings (nonfatal) and no shooting fatalities. By 2022, this had climbed to 79 “shots fired” incidents, 34 non-fatal shootings, and six “fatal injury” shootings. So far, 2023 looks to be at least as violent, with 84 “shots fired” incidents, 15 non-fatal injury shootings, and four fatalities already, a scant three months into the year.

Residents who may have looked to console themselves with what, by now, was supposed to be a multi-million dollar stash of cash generated by the gun tax for prevention programs were in for another rude shock. According to one source, the first full year of gun tax collection yielded just $103,766, with $93,220 collected for 2017, $77,518 in 2018, and $85,352 in 2019 – a  four-year total that failed to reach the midpoint, even, of the city’s predicted revenue for a single year.

To get the real financial impact of the gun tax, though, Seattle’s extreme overestimates have to be viewed in the larger context of actual lost revenues. At the time the gun tax was proposed, the proprietor of one of Seattle’s gun stores described what he called the city’s “grossly unsound” reasoning and revenue projections. Seattle, he added, had only two dedicated gun stores, plus a few big box sporting goods stores and pawnshops, but had “plenty more” located a short way out of the city. Rather than “just tighten the belt and hand over the money,” consumers would shop elsewhere and “Seattle gun stores would simply go out of business.” The result? No gun tax income and the city would lose the sales tax, other revenue and jobs the businesses had been generating until then. In his case – because he moved his business to the suburbs outside Seattle when the gun tax was passed – Seattle lost close to $64,000 in sales taxes that his business paid in his new location in 2017.

Another large gun retailer, the owner of Seattle’s Outdoor Emporium, was interviewed in late 2016 and blamed the gun tax for his “$2 million hit” in lost sales, a 32% drop in his customer count, and an estimated $600,000 loss of potential sales tax due to his plummeting sales.

If these figures are accurate, Seattle accomplished the unbelievable financial equivalent of cutting off its nose to spite its face by collecting, in 2016, a little over $100K in gun tax revenue but losing at least seven times as much in sales tax dollars alone. Driving these figures even further into the red, in 2017 the city reportedly spent more on defending a failed lawsuit on the tax (over its refusal to disclose the 2016 revenue collected) than it obtained that year in total gun tax income.    

It’s not just a case of the usual wonky progressive math. Civic politicians have hurt city taxpayers, to be sure, but taking “control” of the city’s destiny with this “inventive” ordinance has correlated with violent crime rates reaching record highs. The same ordinance has created an uncompetitive business climate for gun retailers, so residents who need the means to protect themselves and their families from the burgeoning crime wave are forced to go outside Seattle. Even apart from the gigantic question mark on how the gun tax revenues have been spent and to what end, it’s difficult to interpret these outcomes as anything other than a complete and dismal failure.

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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.