Gun-rights groups are suing Seattle in King County Superior Court over the city’s new tax on gun and ammunition sales.

Share story

Lawyers for Seattle and the National Rifle Association (NRA) exchanged verbal buckshot Friday at a hearing over the city’s new tax on gun and ammunition sales.

But neither side scored an immediate victory in the King County Superior Court case that may determine whether city officials can make Seattle’s gun sellers pay up.

The NRA, other gun-rights groups, two Seattle gun stores and a pair of local gun owners sued the city earlier this year in an attempt to block the tax from taking effect.

The plaintiffs say Seattle is violating a state statute that prohibits cities from implementing regulations on firearms. They say the ordinance charging $25 per gun and 2 or 5 cents per round of ammunition is in reality not a tax but a regulatory fee. Seattle officials insist the ordinance is truly a tax and therefore not banned by the state.

This week, save 75% on select subscriptions.

The City Council voted unanimously in August to approve the ordinance, and the tax is scheduled to start Jan. 1. The plaintiffs are asking King County Superior Court Judge Palmer Robinson to declare the ordinance void and block the tax from taking effect.

“What this is, your honor, is the latest skirmish in what’s been sort of a long-running battle between the state and the city for control of the field of firearms,” said Steve Fogg, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, adding, “This is another example of (Seattle’s) efforts to work around pre-emption, of efforts to take back control of firearms regulation.”

Fogg cited an email sent in March by Stephanie Ervin, deputy campaign manager at the Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility, to City Councilmember Nick Licata.

“We’re putting together a group to brainstorm opportunities at the local level to work around pre-emption as it relates to gun laws. Let’s get creative about how to curtail gun irresponsibility,” she wrote, according to Fogg, who said Licata replied, “Count me in.”

Fogg added: “The starting point of all this was, ‘How do we get around pre-emption.’ ”

William Abrams, a lawyer working pro bono to defend the city, said the point of the ordinance is to raise revenue for gun-violence-prevention research and programs.

“What’s the difference between regulation and taxation? Regulation is something that requires conduct, that prevents conduct, that limits conduct or that requires that somebody pay for the effects of their conduct,” Abrams said. “Taxation is to raise revenue, and cities have broad powers to raise revenue through a variety of taxes.”

The lawyer for the city told the judge that regulatory fees, as opposed to taxes, are paid based on services received or to mitigate a burden imposed on the public.

“I don’t think the NRA and the retail plaintiffs in this case are going to say they’re getting a service from gun-education programs,” he said. “I don’t think you’re going to hear from them that the retail sale of guns in this city is a cause of gun violence.”

Council President Tim Burgess, who sponsored the ordinance, showed up in court to watch Friday, as did City Attorney Pete Holmes. Robinson, after listening to the lawyers trade fire, decided against ruling from the bench. The judge instead said she would issue a written ruling by Tuesday.

The Illinois county that includes Chicago adopted a $25 tax on gun sales in 2012. The tax there is being collected in escrow while a lawsuit against the county plays out.

Echoing Abrams, Burgess said after the hearing, “This has nothing to do with gun control.” But Sergey Solyanik, who owns Precise Shooter near Green Lake, told reporters the tax will force him to move one of Seattle’s few gun stores outside the city.