The money is meant to fund a Harborview Medical Center study and intervention program for gun-violence victims. Seattle has been collecting it for a year, but — citing taxpayer privacy and pending lawsuits — it has neither released how much it’s raised, nor spent it.
Seattle has been taxing firearms and ammunition sales for more than a year now to support gun-violence research at Harborview Medical Center.
But the city won’t say how much revenue the new tax has raised, and the money has yet to support any research.
Why? Officials say they’re keeping the revenue information confidential to protect taxpayers’ privacy and are waiting to spend the money until a 2015 lawsuit is resolved.
Firearms and ammunition sales tax
The tax — $25 per firearm and 2 or 5 cents per round of ammunition — charged to gun sellers took effect Jan. 1, 2016.
City Councilmember Tim Burgess said the money is meant to fund a Harborview Medical Center study and intervention program for gun-violence victims.
Advanced by City Councilmember Tim Burgess and adopted by the council in 2015, the tax charged to gun sellers took effect Jan. 1, 2016.
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Burgess said the money — $25 per firearm and 2 or 5 cents per round of ammunition — is meant to fund a Harborview Medical Center study and intervention program for gun-violence victims.
Treating gunshot victims at Harborview costs taxpayers many millions of dollars each year, he noted.
“It’s time for the gun industry to help defray those costs and this is a very reasonable way to do it,” Burgess said at the time.
When Burgess proposed the tax, he said the city’s budget office had estimated it would raise $300,000 to $500,000 a year.
But now the tax is in place and officials say they can’t share revenue information because they don’t want to violate state and city laws that safeguard the privacy of individual taxpayers.
That’s the same reason they gave last year when they declined to disclose how much money the tax had raised after three months.
Information that would violate a taxpayer’s privacy or result in an unfair competitive disadvantage to the taxpayer is exempt from the state law requiring governments to disclose public records.
“The city maintains its position that we will not release tax information, even in the aggregate, while there are too few taxpayers or if there are other circumstances that would result in the disclosure of confidential tax information, such as a small number of taxpayers with a single taxpayer paying a large percentage of the aggregate figure,” said Julie Moore, spokeswoman for the Finance and Administrative Services department. “With all returns received for 2016, this is the situation we are in.”
There were 40 federal firearms licensees in Seattle in July 2015, when Burgess proposed the tax, including pawnshops, sporting-goods stores and individuals serving as go-betweens for internet firearms sales, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. There were only two stores dedicated to guns.
As of last month, there were 35 licensees in the city, according to the bureau. The two stores dedicated to guns are no longer open in Seattle.
One major firearms seller that’s still in business is Outdoor Emporium. Last June, owner Mike Coombs said the Sodo fishing, hunting and shooting store had paid the city about $21,000 in gun and ammo taxes during the first three months of 2016.
On the advice of his lawyers, Coombs says he isn’t disclosing an updated figure.
The Bellevue-based Second Amendment Foundation and TheGunMag.com senior editor Dave Workman are suing Seattle for the revenue information, arguing the city should be able to release an aggregate number.
“Release of this information is being litigated,” said Moore, the city spokeswoman. “The court’s decision in that case, not likely to occur until later this year, may inform how we treat this information.”
Moore added, “At this time, we intend to maintain our position … and will continue withholding the information, unless we are instructed otherwise by the court.”
In a separate lawsuit, Outdoor Emporium, the Second Amendment Foundation and other opponents of the tax, including the National Rifle Association, are attempting to strike down the tax altogether.
The plaintiffs say it is actually a regulatory fee that violates a state ban on cities regulating firearms.
They say Seattle’s real goal isn’t to raise money for research but rather to reduce gun sales and drive gun stores out of city.
“These two lawsuits are related,” said Steven Fogg, a lawyer for the plaintiffs in both the public-records case and the lawsuit against the tax.
“The fact that the city won’t release the amount of money is an indication of what the true nature of this tax is.”
The plaintiffs lost their initial challenge in December 2015, when a King County Superior Court judge sided with the city. The plaintiffs then appealed the case to a state appeals court, which recently passed it on to the state Supreme Court.
That court’s justices heard arguments on the case last month. Fogg says a ruling is expected sometime later this year.
Moore says the city is waiting until then to spend the money it’s been collecting.
“The revenue from the gun tax is being held in a holding account pending the outcome of the litigation. We have done this in the past with other tax litigation.”
Burgess says he hopes the city will be able to release the revenue information soon.
“Our intention was clear — to tax these products and dedicate the money to gun-violence research,” he said. “I don’t think it was anybody’s intent to diminish sales.”
Gun violence as disease
Though the money from the tax isn’t yet being used, the research it’s intended to fund is moving ahead, with $275,000 that the council allocated for 2016 and 2017 coming out of the city’s general fund.
Harborview’s program is based on an initial study in 2014: Researchers found gunshot survivors were 21 times more likely to return to the hospital with another gunshot wound, compared with people who had been hospitalized for other reasons.
The researchers are now conducting a randomized trial — they’re providing some gunshot survivors with services ranging from substance-abuse and mental-health treatment to employment assistance.
The goal is to determine whether gunshot victims who receive support after hospitalization are less likely to end up in the hospital again. Dr. Ali Rowhani-Rahbar, who’s leading the program, says it’s the first trial of its kind.
“It’s groundbreaking,” Rowhani-Rahbar said. “We want to look at gun violence as a disease — as a public-health problem that we can hopefully reduce the way we’ve reduced other injuries, such as car crashes.”