Seattle's gun tax upheld, and one firearms business may move

A Seattle tax on guns and ammo has cost SODO's Outdoor Emporium money. It has also had to lay off employees. (Photo: KOMO News)

The Washington Supreme Court upheld Seattle's so-called "gun violence tax" against a challenge from gun-rights groups Thursday.

In an 8-1 decision , the justices affirmed a lower court ruling that the levy was valid because it fell within the city's taxing authority and because its primary purpose was to raise revenue for "the public benefit."

The tax, which took effect last year, adds $25 to the price of each firearm sold in the city plus 2 or 5 cents per round of ammunition. It raised $200,000 in its first year, with the money earmarked for gun-violence research.

The ruling dismayed Mike Coombs, co-owner of the Outdoor Emporium in SODO. The business pays about 80 percent of the gun and ammo taxes collected in the city. It's the largest gun seller in the city.

"We've had to lay off some employees, and that's been tough, and I don't see at this point its going to get any better," he said.

He's thinking of moving his gun department to Bellevue and tells customers to buy their guns and ammo at his store in Fife, where there is no tax.

Coombs, along with the National Rifle Association and other gun rights groups sued and others challenged the tax in a lawsuit. 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.

"It's truly disappointing that the NRA and its allies always oppose these common sense steps to shine light on the gun violence epidemic," Seattle City Councilman Tim 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.

Burgess told KOMO that the intent of the tax is to raise money for programs to prevent gun violence and not to drive gun shops from the city.,

But he added, "I am OK if that's what happens naturally in the marketplace. That's not something we are driving or have any influence on."

The tax was predicted to raise $300,000 to $500,000 . But it has fallen short of that amount.

Coombs notes that his business paid $86,000 in the tax, and that was 80 percent of the total.

The revenue will fall even more if he moves is gun business to Bellevue.

"If we move the gun room to the Eastside, they get zero revenue."

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