Seattle enlists high-powered legal help to battle NRA lawsuit over so-called gun violence tax

Government And Institutions Associated Press

The city of Seattle has enlisted some high-powered legal help to combat a lawsuit brought by the National Rifle Association and other gun rights groups over its so-called gun violence tax, City Attorney Pete Holmes said Thursday.

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The Washington, D.C.-based law firm Steptoe and Johnson is working with the city for free. The firm has 500 lawyers around the world and specializes in complex litigation. It is joined in the Seattle case by the local firm Gordon Tilden Thomas and Cordell, which also is donating its services.

The tax, designed to offset the cost of gun violence, was approved by the City Council last month and takes effect in January. It adds $25 to the price of each firearm sold in the city, plus 2 or 5 cents per round of ammunition. The revenue would be used for gun safety research and violence prevention.

Seattle's law is modeled after a similar one in Cook County, Illinois, that also is being challenged. The $25 tax there is being collected and placed in escrow pending the legal case.

The NRA, the Bellevue-based Second Amendment Foundation and the National Shooting Sports Foundation, along with two gun owners and two gun shops, brought the lawsuit against Seattle. They argue the tax is illegal because Washington state prohibits local governments from adopting laws related to firearms unless those local ordinances are specifically authorized by the state.

The city responded to the complaint Wednesday in documents filed in King County Superior Court. It said the measure is within its taxing authority.

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"The Ordinance does not limit any person's right to purchase, sell, acquire, transfer, discharge or transport firearms or ammunition," the city wrote.

According to City Council President Tim Burgess, who proposed the tax, the direct medical costs of treating 253 gunshot victims at Harborview Medical Center in 2014 totaled more than $17 million. Taxpayers paid more than $12 million of that.

City officials estimate the new tax would bring in $300,000 to $500,000 a year, but gun shop owners told council members those numbers were inflated. They said the law would cost them customers and sales and could force them to move out of the city.

William F. Abrams, a consulting professor at Stanford University who heads Steptoe and Johnson's office in Palo Alto, California, is leading the firm's team on the Seattle case.

In a news release issued by the city, Abrams said Seattle has the right to mitigate the costs of gun violence by taxing those who engage in the sale of firearms and ammunition there.

"This tax addresses a public health crisis that imposes a huge financial burden on the city — it does not regulate the sale or use of firearms," he said in the release.