This morning, Seattle City Council President Tim Burgess unveiled a pair of gun-related bills, which he's pitching as a way to make the local gun industry share the public health burden of gun violence.
"The reality is guns and ammunition cause great harm," Burgess says, "and it’s very reasonable ask that industry to help with that problem."
Here's what the two bills would do:
• Charge gun sellers in the city of Seattle $25 on each firearm sold
• Charge those who sell ammo $.05 per bullet sold
• Exempt the following from the taxes: sales of antique guns, individual person-to-person sales, those who sell four or fewer guns a year, and those who sell 200 or fewer rounds of ammunition a year.
• Require people to report lost or stolen guns to police. Those discovered to have not reported would face a civil infraction, which could come with a fine of up to $500. (It's unlikely police would know someone hadn't reported a lost or stolen gun unless that gun was later involved in a police investigation.)
The new taxes are expected to raise between $300,000 and $500,000, which pales in comparison to the millions of dollars gun violence costs the city every year.
According to Burgess' office, 253 gunshot victims treated at Harborview last year cost taxpayers $12 million. A 2013 report from Seattle and King County Public Health says firearm deaths cost $177 million in medical expenses and lost productivity between 2007 and 2011, and the average charge for a gunshot hospitalization was $66,000.
The money raised from the new taxes wouldn't address much of those costs. Instead, it would be specifically funneled into an intervention program, in which people hospitalized because of gun violence would meet with doctors and social workers before being released.
A study commissioned by the city council and released last summer compared people hospitalized for gunshot wounds and those hospitalized for other reasons. Those in the hospital for gunshot wounds were 30 times more likely to be hospitalized again for another gun injury and 11 times more likely to die from gun violence in the next five years. Harborview's Injury Prevention and Research Center created the intervention program as a way to try to reduce that return rate, but has had trouble finding funding to start it, Burgess says, which is where the tax comes in. The approach is modeled on similar programs that focus on alcohol and substance abuse.
The reporting requirement will help police trace weapons in the city, among other benefits.
"This is another example of where Seattle hopefully can lead the way," Burgess says. "We can not only help address the problem in our city but create interest at state legislature." Ideally, he says, Olympia would take this up and consider similar statewide laws.
If the new rules take effect, the city is likely to get sued by guns rights groups or gun sellers who argue such rules are not allowed under state laws that limit local taxes. The founder of the Second Amendment Foundation based in Bellevue told the Seattle Times the tax is "dead on arrival."
Burgess and the city's legal department believe the new taxes would hold up because they are not "so burdensome that they cause a business to fail." And that, Burgess says, is why—even in the face of massive public health costs associated with guns—he didn't make the tax go further. If the city were to tax guns at a level meant to actually discourage their sale (and start to deal with our massive gun problem), "we would lose," Burgess says.
The timing of these proposals will fit well into Burgess' election opponents' critique that he's becoming more progressive in an effort to get reelected. (This was even more blatant in May when Burgess introduced renter protections on which his opponent Jon Grant has long been working.)
Burgess rejects that as "political spin."
Burgess will introduce the bills to a council committee next week and they're likely to get a full council vote within a month.
Mayor Ed Murray expressed support in a statement this morning.
“We know the people of Seattle demand action on this issue, not more talk," Murray said. "Last year at the ballot box, voters approved greater accountability in background checks for gun sales. This proposal builds on that momentum by funding more tools to reduce the devastating impacts that guns have on our community.”
I've got requests for comment in to some council members, including Bruce Harrell, who has advocated for a change to state law to give cities more ability to enact gun control. Council Member Nick Licata called Burgess' proposals a "slam dunk on this council" and urged the King County Council to do something similar.
On the Seattle City Council, Licata says, "I can't imagine anyone being opposed to it."