Seattle City Council President Tim Burgess is proposing a tax on the sale of firearms and ammunition. So where are guns sold in Seattle — and how?
Seattle City Council President Tim Burgess turned heads this past week when he proposed a new tax on the sale of firearms and ammunition, saying it would raise $300,000 to $500,000 annually for gun-violence-prevention research and programs.
So how would the tax work and what effect would it have in a city with very few brick-and-mortar gun stores?
The owner of one such store — on Aurora Avenue North near Green Lake — says the tax would drive him out of business, or out of the city.
Sergey Solyanik says his profit margins are about 13 percent for guns over $1,000 and about 10 percent for guns under $1,000 — before paying credit-card fees.
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The software developer, who opened Precise Shooter last December, says he primarily sells range- and sport-shooting ammunition for five to 20 cents per round.
The legislation Burgess is proposing — scheduled to come before a council committee Wednesday — would be imposed on gun sellers, and it would add $25 per firearm and five cents per round of ammunition.
“I would have almost no margins, so I would pass the tax on to my customers and most people would simply not buy from me,” Solyanik said. “They would go to any of the stores around Seattle — there are a large number — and I would have to close.”
That’s the main reason Solyanik doesn’t think Burgess’ legislation would raise as much as $300,000 per year: Shuttered businesses don’t pay taxes.
The council president says he doesn’t know whether the tax would cause gun stores to close. But $25 per firearm isn’t onerous, he insists.
Burgess says business owners rang alarm bells in the same way before the city passed laws mandating sick leave for workers and a higher minimum wage.
The Illinois county that includes Chicago, which has been plagued by some of the nation’s worst gun violence, adopted a tax of $25 per firearm in 2012 and is now collecting about $800,000 per year in revenue, he said.
Burgess says the point of the legislation isn’t to put gun stores out of business. But he isn’t particularly worried about them shutting down or being forced out. He says he’s more concerned about what shootings cost victims, neighborhoods and taxpayers.
And recognizing that many guns used in crimes aren’t legally obtained, Burgess is also proposing to require that gun owners tell police when they lose or have a firearm stolen.
“This isn’t an anti-gun measure,” Burgess said. “It’s an attempt to mitigate the negative public-health implications of gun violence. Now, I will acknowledge it would be ideal if this tax could be statewide. Maybe our leadership can help accomplish that.”
To estimate how much revenue Burgess’ tax might raise, Seattle finance officials obtained the annual number of background checks for gun sales in Washington.
Then they looked up what percentage of Washington’s licensed gun dealers were in Seattle and used that to guess the number of firearms sales in the city, said Glen Lee, the city’s finance director.
There were 22 licensed dealers listed in the city when the officials checked. Some are actual stores, including three Big 5 Sporting Goods locations. But more are either pawnshops or individuals mostly serving as middlemen for Internet firearms sales.
When someone buys a gun online, the purchase is shipped to a dealer who conducts a background check and charges the buyer a fee before handing the gun over.
Under Burgess’ proposal, dealers facilitating those transactions wouldn’t be taxed, Lee says. Internet retailers could be taxed, but only if they’re located in Seattle. Lee says officials took Internet sales into account when they gave Burgess his figures.
“We feel confident that the range we’ve provided is relatively conservative,” Lee said.
Todd Hildebrand, a White Center-based dealer, says about 90 percent of his transactions are Internet transfers, so the proposed tax wouldn’t really affect business like his. But he agrees with Solyanik about how the legislation would affect brick-and-mortar sales.
“The public won’t buy ammunition in Seattle anymore,” Hildebrand said. “When a $10 or $15 box of ammunition costs an extra five bucks, it won’t be worth it.”
There aren’t huge numbers of guns and bullets being sold in Seattle stores. Solyanik says Precise Shooter sold 612 firearms and 115,160 rounds from January through June, not counting third-party transfers.
Bill Osberg, who works at the Capitol Loans in West Seattle, says the pawnshop clears about 15 to 20 gun sales a month, not counting transfers.
“You never know what people are going to do,” Osberg ruminated, speaking for himself only — not on behalf of Capitol Loans. “I really don’t know. Sometimes $5 is important to someone and sometimes $50 doesn’t matter.”
Burgess says his office has been flooded with emails about the proposed tax.
“The reaction has been mixed,” he said. “We’re getting a ton of emails arriving from outside Seattle and across the country in opposition. But we’re getting emails of support, as well.”
The council’s other eight members are each supporting the bill, as is the mayor, so it’s more or less a done deal, says Burgess. The city will likely be sued by gun-rights advocates if the legislation is approved.