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NRA Fails at Challenging Seattle Firearms Tax

Seattle successfully passes a tax on firearm sales within its City limits despite NRA’s efforts to block the tax.

Photo by Daniel Acker (Bloomberg).

Guns are everywhere, and the 2015 news cycle saw no shortage of gun violence across the United States.  Blame has been placed in many areas, but a large majority appears to blame firearms, and feels that there are not enough restrictions on obtaining firearms.  The City of Seattle, Washington has taken a step which they believe will curb gun violence and promote education by applying a tax on individual firearms sales.

Many pro-gun organizations have joined forces to oppose the tax, including the National Rifle Association.   

Many pro-gun organizations have joined forces to oppose the tax, including the National Rifle Association.   The National Rifle Association (“NRA”) originally formed to give rifle owners a place to shoot, and to give young people shooting lessons.  Today, the group receives most of its recognition for its political activism.  Along with political activism, their main goal is training and education of citizens.

In 1975, the organization formed the Institute for Legislative Action, whose focus was the political defense of the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution, the “right to bear arms.”   They lobby for preserving the right of law-abiding individuals to purchase, possess, and use firearms in accordance with the second amendment.  The institute gets involved in any issue, which might affect the second amendment.

The counter part to the NRA is the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.   Founded in 1974, the coalition has a stated purpose of “seeking freedom from gun violence through research, strategic engagement and effective policy advocacy.”  Interpreting the Second Amendment differently, the coalition believes the Second Amendment does not give all citizens the right to firearms, and that the government must implement stricter laws for gun control.  They lobby Congress and state legislatures for similar issues as the NRA, often speaking out in opposition.

Seattle said that the money from the tax is to fund research and public education programs to support gun safety and prevent gun violence.  

One area of state legislation in which the NRA has become vocal involves taxes on firearms sales and ammunition.  In August 2015, the City of Seattle, Washington unanimously passed an ordinance, referred to as the “gun violence tax”, that would put a 25 dollar tax on businesses for all individual firearms sale as well as a two or five cent tax for each round of ammunition sold (the amount is dependent on the type of ammunition).   Seattle estimates that the tax will raise revenues of $300,000-$500,000 per year.

In passing the ordinance, the city council hired researchers to estimate costs of gun violence to taxpayers.  According to the study, taxpayers were covering 70 percent of costs.  Even though taxpayers may save money, gun storeowners in the Seattle area are fearful that they will lose customers and sales, and ultimately may be forced to move their businesses outside of the city.

Seattle’s ordinance specifically states, “The city finds and declares that gun violence directly affects the city and its residents.”  In passing the ordinance, the city council relies on its taxing authority given to it by the Washington State Constitution, which gives it the power to raise revenue to provide public benefits.  Seattle said that the money from the tax is to fund research and public education programs to support gun safety and prevent gun violence.

NRA points out in its lawsuit seeking to block the tax that the City’s charge is not for a license, but is rather a tax on all gun sales.  

The NRA argued that they believe the ordinance is not truly for revenue purposes but rather an attempt to go around a state law granting regulatory authority over firearms to the State of Washington, in response to gun violence.  Washington does allow for individual cities to grant licenses and to charge for those licenses to produce revenue, but the NRA points out in its lawsuit seeking to block the tax that the City’s charge is not for a license, but is rather a tax on all gun sales.

Whether an ordinance is a tax or a regulation has a large impact on whether a court may enforce it.   If a court finds that the fee is a regulation, the court will strike it down as an impermissible regulation against the State of Washington’s gun laws.  All regulation of guns must go through the State Legislature of Washington.

Although these types of taxes are rare in the United States, they do exist elsewhere.  One such tax is in Cook County, Illinois—home to the city of Chicago.  Cook County passed its gun tax in 2012, also citing prevention and education on gun violence as their purpose.  The Cook County tax started as a $25 tax on the sale of firearms, however the county plans to extend the tax to gun cartridges in 2016.  The ammunition provision was initially struck down in 2012.   However, despite the tax on firearms, which was imposed with similar goals as the Seattle tax, gun violence in Cook County has continued to escalate, with Chicago being one of the top gun violence cities in the United States.

King County Superior Court Judge Palmer Robinson did not agree with the NRA. 

The NRA, along with the Second Amendment Foundation, filed the lawsuit against the City of Seattle, the mayor, and the department of financial and administrative services, seeking a judgment declaring that the ordinance violates Washington Statutory and constitutional law, and an injunction prohibiting the city from collecting the tax and enforcing the ordinance.

King County Superior Court Judge Palmer Robinson did not agree with the NRA.  Judge Robinson determined that the ordinance was intended as a tax, and not as a regulation on gun purchases.  Due to this, the ordinance was within the power of the City of Seattle to pass.  Judge Robinson believed that the purpose to raise money was clear, and there was no evidence to suggest anything different. Judge Robinson said, “If the costs do not regulate an activity, the fee is more likely a tax. In this case, the money generated goes to public education and research. That is not a regulatory purpose”

Opposition to the ordinance, including the NRA, says that the court improperly took the city of Seattle’s purpose at face value, without attempting to look at what the ulterior motive of limiting individual firearms sales.

The NRA and the Second Amendment foundation have already announced plans to appeal the case immediately.  The City of Seattle is fully prepared to handle the appeal as it defends what it believes is a common-sense step in reducing gun violence.  Regardless of the appeal and NRA’s persistent efforts to get rid of Seattle’s new tax, the tax took effect on January 1, 2016.

Katelyn Heath, Ethics Editor Emeritus
About Katelyn Heath, Ethics Editor Emeritus (20 Articles)
Katelyn Heath is a 2017 graduate of Campbell Law School and served as the Ethics Editor for the Campbell Law Observer during the 2016-2017 academic year. She is from Salisbury, North Carolina and graduated from UNC-Charlotte with a Bachelor of Arts in History and Criminal Justice in 2014. Following her first year of law school she attended Baylor Law Schools Academy of the Advocate in Scotland. She is also currently working for Marshall and Taylor PLLC, a local family law firm.
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