(This is an updated column) A hearing this Friday in King County Superior Court on a lawsuit challenging Seattle’s so-called “gun violence tax” puts Washington state’s preemption law on the line once again, and a Seattle Times editorial published late Tuesday supports the tax, which opponents say ignores and tries to circumvent the intent, and the letter, of the law.
The newspaper argues that, “A $25 tax on each firearm sold within the city is reasonable, as is a 2-cent- or 5-cent-per-round tax for various types of ammunition.” Not only is this unreasonable, it does not appear legal under the state’s model preemption law, critics argue. Adopted in 1983, updated in 1985 and affirmed by an earlier ruling against the City of Seattle when it tried to ban firearms in city park facilities, the law places sole authority for all gun regulation in the hands of the legislature.
The lawsuit, brought by the Second Amendment Foundation, National Rifle Association, National Shooting Sports Foundation, two local gun shops and two private citizens, is aimed at protecting the state statute. The action was filed in August. One wonders why the state Attorney General’s office isn’t also a plaintiff, or hasn’t filed its own legal action against the city.
Seattle lost the earlier lawsuit, also brought by SAF, NRA and other plaintiffs, both at the trial court and again in a unanimous ruling by the State Court of Appeals. Plaintiffs are hoping for a repeat, and whichever way this goes, there will likely be an appeal from one side or the other.
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The Times editorial argues that the city is within its legal authority to charge this tax. A cursory read of the state’s 32-year-old law suggests otherwise. Here’s what the statute (RCW 9.41.290) says in part:
“The state of Washington hereby fully occupies and preempts the entire field of firearms regulation within the boundaries of the state, including the registration, licensing, possession, purchase, sale, acquisition, transfer, discharge, and transportation of firearms, or any other element relating to firearms or parts thereof, including ammunition and reloader components…” There does not appear to be any wiggle room.
It might be enlightening to read the original complaint, and the subsequent response to the city’s argument from the attorneys for SAF, NRA, NSSF and its co-plaintiffs. The argument is that this really is a gun control scheme, and that the tax isn’t legal.
The response also refers to documents that describe “meetings attended by Seattle Council Members as a way to ‘brainstorm opportunities at the local level to work-around preemption as it relates to gun laws’ to ‘keep up an ‘all-fronts’ strategy and to get creative about how we curtail gun irresponsibility.” The plaintiffs further allege that, “While Seattle’s prior experience with preemption…prompted a careful avoidance of as much regulatory language as possible in the Ordinance, the contemporaneous record amply demonstrates that the Seattle City Council sought to use the Ordinance to reduce access to firearms and ammunition.”
The Times editorial refers to a “groundbreaking 2014 study funded by the city showed that patients admitted to hospitals statewide for gunshot wounds are 30 times more likely to return with another firearm injury compared to people hospitalized for other reasons.” If the same people keep getting shot, that suggests they’re either involved in activities that might result in gunplay, or they are darned careless with firearms.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs also state, “Notably, the funds are not aimed at broad-based revenue generation. Instead, they are aimed only at regulating gun violence in Seattle, including research on how to reduce access to firearms and funding the collection, tracking, and auditing of the number of firearms and rounds of ammunition sold by retailers. Accordingly, Seattle’s proposed research and intervention programs are not an end to themselves, but rather a means to more closely monitor and minimize the sale of firearms and ammunition.”
Long story short, the council and mayor, by adopting this tax, are allegedly working to make the entire city a utopian “gun free zone.” Seattle would delight in eroding the state’s preemption law, allowing itself to become a “city-state” on the east shore of Puget Sound.
The editorial asserts that Seattle will pursue its “research” even if it loses in court. That has something of a hollow ring, considering that the city could have done that without adopting the tax. This was clearly an effort to penalize gun owners and draw gun rights organizations into a legal action that would put a dent in their wallets, win or lose.
It is telling that the editorial suggests that if Seattle gets away with this, “other cities should also pitch in…” And thus would commence the erosion of state preemption, rolling back the clock to a time when there was a checkerboard of often conflicting laws, this time with the added opportunity of trapping the gun owners they despise in a mountain of red tape.
The hearing this Friday should be interesting. NRA, SAF and NSSF — partnering for the first time in a single legal action — and their attorneys are hoping for a ruling before the tax is supposed to take effect on Jan. 1.
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