A Superior Court judge in Seattle has ruled against the city in a months-long legal battle to keep revenues from a controversial “gun violence tax” secret, handing a victory to the senior editor of a firearms news magazine and the Second Amendment Foundation (SAF).
TheGunMag.com, a monthly print and online publication owned by SAF, filed a Public Records Act (PRA) request more than a year ago, seeking first-quarter tax revenue figures from the city, which adopted the gun tax in 2015. That tax is the target of a separate lawsuit by SAF, the National Rifle Association, National Shooting Sports Foundation and two firearms retailers. That case is now before the Washington State Supreme Court.
When the PRA request was originally filed by Dave Workman, TheGunMag.com senior editor, the city refused to disclose its revenue figure, citing privacy concerns for the limited number of gun dealers in the city. The “gun violence tax” assesses a $25 fee for every gun sale, plus five cents for every round of centerfire ammunition and two cents for every rimfire round sold in the city.
The tax was adopted by the council and hastily signed by the mayor after projections that it would raise between $300,000 and $500,000 annually. That money ostensibly was to be used to finance “gun violence research” and prevention programs.
When the city would not reveal its revenue, TheGunMag.com clarified its request for only an aggregate figure, not individual tax payments. The city persisted, and in September, the magazine sued. SAF owns the publication and Alan Gottlieb is publisher.
Other news agencies also sought the revenue information, and they were also rebuffed. In the meantime, because of the initial lawsuit against the tax, the city reportedly as not spending any of that money, instead taking $275,000 from the general fund to launch its “gun violence” programs.
Earlier this year, the city attempted to satisfy the complaint by announcing that it had collected “less than $200,000” for the entire year of 2016, which was well short of the projection. But how short did not become apparent until this past spring, when the largest remaining retailer, Outdoor Emporium, revealed that it was paying the largest share of the tax, approximately 80 percent. That would put the tax revenue ceiling much closer to $100,000.
“We are delighted with the outcome of this case,” said Gottlieb, who is also SAF’s executive vice president. “It was silly for Seattle to withhold this information, but we’re pretty certain why the city did it. The council was told that this tax could generate between $300,000 and a half-million dollars, but now it appears the city has collected just over $100,000, which is an embarrassing shortfall.
“As a result,” he added, “the city has essentially lost money on this scheme because now they have to pay our attorney fees, plus a small penalty. On top of that, the city has lost tax revenue because one major gun dealer has moved out of the city and another has reported considerable sales losses. That is tax money the city will never realize.”
Workman described the case as a pure First Amendment issue, saying the people have a right to know how much money the city has collected. That contention was reinforced when the city took money from the general fund to finance its programs, thus “putting every taxpayer in the city on the playing field,” he said.
The city has the option to appeal, according to attorney Steven Fogg of Corr Cronin Michelson Baumgardner Fogg & Moore LLP of Seattle, who represented the plaintiffs in this case.
Judge Lori K. Smith assessed a nominal fine of $1 a day against the city, totaling $377. The city will also have to pay SAF’s attorney fees, which are considerably larger.