The legality of Seattle’s gun tax to fund violence-prevention research was upheld by the state Supreme Court. That should help save lives and perhaps build the case for more state and national gun control.
SEATTLE’S worthy effort to fund gun-violence research with gun taxes will continue, since its legality was affirmed Thursday by the state Supreme Court.
This is a small but important step to offset the unconscionable dearth of federally funded research into the effects and prevention of gun violence. Still, there are lingering questions about the city’s approach.
Since 1996, a craven Congress has supported National Rifle Association efforts to quash federal gun violence research, despite an epidemic of gun violence that has taken far more lives than terrorism.
The NRA was among gun sellers and advocates who sued Seattle over a tax on gun and ammunition sales it created in 2015. Seattle is emulating a gun tax Chicago approved in 2012, with proceeds dedicated to funding research into the effects of gun violence and prevention.
A key issue in the lawsuit was whether the gun tax is simply a tax, which is legal, or an effort to regulate guns via taxation. The latter is currently illegal, since state law prohibits cities from any sort of gun regulation.
In an 8-1 decision, the majority of justices decided Seattle’s tax wasn’t regulatory. In doing so, it chose to discount comments by several City Council members who suggested regulatory intent.
While the outcome of the case is good, since more needs to be done to address violence, it is concerning that the ruling may embolden Seattle to impose more targeted taxes.
Gun advocates couldn’t sway the court. But it was reasonable for them to assume regulatory intent by a City Council that talked about limiting gun sales, and that imposed a soda tax to discourage soda consumption.
Yet in this case, the gun-tax legislation was carefully drafted with the help of outside lawyers who anticipated this legal challenge. Its technical precision held up in court.
Seattle didn’t help its credibility by concealing how much the gun tax raised. The city repeatedly refused to disclose those public records, prompting another lawsuit by gun advocates forcing it to release them.
Seattle’s excuse was that releasing aggregate tax collections would harm the privacy of gun sellers — because there are so few of them, individual tax payments could be deduced. But that didn’t hold water.
The city lost the public-records suit and must release the information shortly. Its recalcitrance will result in city taxpayers paying gun advocates $35,000 in legal fees.
Perhaps Seattle withheld the records because it whiffed its gun-tax revenue forecast. It expected $300,000 to $500,000 annually. In March, the city said “less than $200,000” was generated in the first year, but the actual amount may be much less.
Seattle’s leadership in addressing the epidemic of gun violence is welcome. The research it funds may save lives and help build the case for better state and national gun control.
But the city’s lack of transparency around the effectiveness of its tax legislation is disappointing.