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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Stuckart proposes gun tax to fund mental health services in Spokane

FILE – Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart speaks  Feb. 12, 2017 at Gonzaga University. Stuckart plans to propose a tax on firearm and ammo sales within city limits, similar to a measure approved in Seattle in 2015. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart plans to push a tax on gun and ammunition sales within city limits, similar to a measure Seattle approved in 2015.

“I think we need to be doing everything possible to prevent gun violence,” Stuckart said. “This is literally the only thing municipalities can do.”

A $20 tax would be levied on commercial firearm sales within city limits with an additional tax on rounds of ammunition costing between a penny and 3 cents each, Stuckart said. The money would be earmarked for use by the city’s Community Health & Human Services fund to provide mental health services, the council president said.

Private gun sales would be exempt from taxation as long as a seller made no more than one transaction a quarter, Stuckart said.

Stuckart initially floated the idea on social media Thursday night, a little more than 24 hours after a gunman opened fire at a high school in Parkland, Florida, killing 17 people. The ordinance was developed after a conversation with two professors at nearby colleges at the end of 2015, Stuckart said, and he’s been gathering feedback on the idea since then, including his brief run for Congress early last year.

“People say the assault weapons ban is the reason why (Tom) Foley lost,” Stuckart said, referring to the 1994 federal policy that restricted the sale of certain weapons and the subsequent defeat of the House speaker from Spokane. “I was told, this is an issue you don’t want to touch in Eastern Washington.”

Stuckart will have to persuade a somewhat skeptical City Council to agree to the policy. The council president said he had not had conversations with council members about the specifics of his proposal as of Friday morning and declined to release a draft of his bill until doing so.

But Stuckart insisted he’ll soon be moving forward through the city’s legislative process with his plan.

Some city lawmakers expressed openness to the idea of the tax Friday, but others said the measure likely wouldn’t address the underlying problem of gun violence as well as other steps the city could take.

“I think we can do better,” said City Councilwoman Lori Kinnear, chairwoman of the city’s Public Safety & Community Health Committee. “A tax – it feels good. It’s not going to solve the problem.”

“I’m not sure it’s the right way to go about it,” said City Councilwoman Kate Burke. “The problem is our lackadaisical laws on this very intensive problem that is unique to our country.”

Stuckart said sections of state law that pre-empt local action on firearm bans tied the city’s hands from taking more effective action than the tax. Seattle’s measure was upheld in an 8-1 decision by the Washington Supreme Court last summer, ruling that taxation was not a form of firearm regulation.

But that’s precisely what a tax would amount to, said Frank Perry, owner of the Protection First gun store on the eastern edge of the Chief Garry neighborhood.

“Let’s just raise a fuel tax, and say we’re going to have this pot for mental health,” Perry said. “Let’s not attack a sale on firearms and ammo if they’re so concerned about mental health.”

Clint Olson, owner of Precision Combat Arms on Trent Avenue, said he was concerned the tax would be applied to the large portion of his sales that occur online. Customers order their weapons online, then come into the shop to fill out necessary paperwork and complete their transaction.

“It’s not a competitive way to raise taxes,” Olson said. “I get the simple idea, but it’s not really well thought through.”

There’s evidence to back up that claim. Seattle anticipated raising between $300,000 and $500,000 annually after passing the tax. But in March of last year, the Seattle Times reported earnings of less than $200,000, suggesting sales had slowed.

The Department of Revenue does not track the number of gun sales, because of the variety of retailers that offer them and lump firearm receipts with other merchandise, according to an agency spokeswoman. It’s unclear how much money Spokane could raise from a tax, even if sales were to remain steady after it passed.

Both Perry and Olson said they would consider uprooting their shops and moving outside city limits if a tax passed.

City Councilman Mike Fagan, often the lone conservative voice on the panel, said focusing on guns was the wrong way to address what he called larger societal problems leading to more violence.

“It’s a big problem. It’s a generational problem,” Fagan said. “There’s a lack of parenting going on, and a definite lack of morals, values and principles out there.”

But other council members said they were receptive to the idea.

“I’m interested in anything that’s going to improve public safety,” said City Councilwoman Candace Mumm. “I want to make sure that anything we look at shows actual outcomes and that we’re using best practices that will actually have an effect.”

City Councilwoman Karen Stratton said she was “willing to look” at a tax plan but wouldn’t say it would solve all of the ills of gun violence.

“It’s more than mental health; it’s the availability of guns to people that shouldn’t have them,” she said. “How do you fix that? I’m not sure that will ever happen in my lifetime.”

That’s the reason the city should be taking whatever action it can, Stuckart said, saying he “hadn’t seen any action from the federal government on sensible gun control.”

“People are being massacred,” Stuckart said. “It’s ridiculous.”