OLYMPIA – Seattle can continue to levy a special tax on the sale of guns and ammunition because the state law that bars cities from imposing special regulations on firearms doesn’t apply to taxes, the Washington state Supreme Court said Thursday.
In an 8-1 decision, the court rejected a challenge of the tax approved by the Seattle City Council in 2015 that places a flat tax of $25 on firearms sold in the city, and a tax ranging from 2 cents to 5 cents on each round of ammunition, depending on its size.
It’s projected to raise as much as $500,000 per year, to be used for gun safety programs and public health research on gun violence.
A pair of city residents was joined by several gun-rights organizations in challenging the city ordinance, arguing that it flouts a state law that says cities can’t impose separate regulations on firearms. A group of legislators filed a “friend of the court” brief, also arguing against the tax.
The tax doesn’t limit or restrict the right to own, use, sell or buy a gun, attorneys for Seattle argued. Rather, they said, it’s a way to raise money to benefit city residents through a tax the city has the authority to levy. The state attorney general’s office filed a brief agreeing with the city.
Courts should be dubious of regulations that masquerade as taxes or taxes masquerading as regulations, but there’s no convincing evidence that’s happening in this instance, the majority opinion written by Justice Debra Stephens said. The argument that stores have to keep sales records didn’t make it a regulation.
“It is a tax,” and cities like Seattle have broad taxing authority, she said.
Justice Sheryl Gordon McCloud disagreed, saying the 1983 law has been amended over the years to bar more activity, and it covers local laws and ordinances related to firearms. The tax is set up by an ordinance, so it shouldn’t be allowed, she said.
Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes said in a news release that the court recognized “the challenges the state’s largest city faces in protecting its residents from gun violence and the need to identify sufficient revenue sources to fund its core missions.”
Alan Gottlieb of the Second Amendment Foundation, one of the groups that filed the lawsuit, called the decision a loss for firearms dealers, gun owners and “the rule of law.”
“It’s a slap in the face to the Washington Legislature,” Gottlieb said in a news release. “It is clear from this ruling the Legislature will have to strengthen the pre-emption act to not only nullify what amounts to an unconstitutional poll tax on gun owners, but to also make sure this is not allowed to happen again.”
The ruling should prompt gun owners to get involved in Supreme Court races, he said.
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