Friday, February 16, 2018

Spokane's Council President Ben Stuckart floats Seattle-style proposal: Tax gun purchases to pay for violence prevention

Posted By on Fri, Feb 16, 2018 at 5:56 PM

click to enlarge Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart raises the possibility of taxing gun sales, similar to Seattle. - DANIEL WALTERS PHOTO
Daniel Walters photo
Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart raises the possibility of taxing gun sales, similar to Seattle.

The night before starting a nine-day, no-work vacation, City Council President Ben Stuckart floated a potential bombshell on Facebook. He was looking at taxing guns.

"I have the ordinance ready to increases taxes on gun purchases in the city," Stuckart wrote on Facebook. "We could put the money towards mental health services. If not now, when?"

But for Stuckart, the idea isn't new. In fact, he says, by text message, that he's had an ordinance on the issue written since January 2016.

Stuckart says that several citizens, including an Eastern Washington University professor and applied social and community psychologist Olga Lucia Herrera, had been floating the initial stages of a proposal a few years ago. But the citizens abandoned the proposal due to busyness, the possibility of a competing state proposal and — in particular — the desire to avoid inadvertently stigmatizing mental illness.

"I don’t want to be the author of a solution that creates more problems,” Herrera says.

For her, details matter. 

But now, in the aftermath of yet another mass slaughter of yet another public school, Stuckart has resurrected the proposal.

The proposed Gun Violence Prevention Ordinance (as currently written) would charge a $20 fee per firearm purchase, $0.01 per small rounds of ammunition and $0.03 for ammunition above a .22 caliber.

The money, according to the 2016 framework of the ordinance, would only go to programs that "prevent gun accessibility to children and those suffering from mental illness, prevent gun violence ... promote recreational gun safety," and address the public health costs associated with gun violence.

It would not apply to those who only sell one gun per quarter or to licensed dealers simply facilitating gun sales between unlicensed sellers for the purpose of conducting background checks.

While Stuckart was not available by phone — as he was packing for vacation — he did answer a few questions with The Inlander by text message.

"I think that is a reasonable amount for people to pay for safety education and suicide prevention work. And mental health services," Stuckart wrote in a text about the $20 charge. "Guns cause issues and those that buy them can pay for some solutions."

Reaction to his Facebook post varied.

"Great move," wrote the Center for Justice's Rick Eichstaedt.

"We knew it was coming eventually," the 8th Man Facebook page posted. "Stuckart wants to punish gun owners in the city of Spokane with more taxes."

Herrera says that her support depends on the fine print, for how the proposal is worded and where it directs the funds.

The proposal, however, isn't a new idea. Seattle passed a similar ordinance in 2015 — intending to put the revenue toward gun research at Harborview Medical Center — and ended up getting sued by the National Rifle Association because of it.

While the NRA argued that the tax violated a state law preventing local gun regulations, the Supreme Court overwhelmingly ruled last year that it didn't — the tax was a fee, not a regulation.

Tim Burgess, former Seattle councilman and (briefly) the former mayor of Seattle, says the proposal came out of an effort in Seattle to try to answer very basic questions about gun
click to enlarge Former Seattle Councilman Tim Burgess
Former Seattle Councilman Tim Burgess

"We were meeting and talking to police and community folks," Burgess says. "We realized we had very little research information about what happens to victims of gun violence."

As the city and the University of Washington began researching common traits victims of gun violence who came to the hospital, they realized that past victims of gun violence were far more likely to become victims of gun violence in the future.

In the 1990s, Burgess says, the Harborview Medical Center successfully cut reoccurrences of alcohol-related injuries by more than half by giving them short counseling sessions before they were released from the hospital.

"Let’s do the same thing with gunshot victims and see if we can have the same impacts," Burgess says. "How do we pay for that? Let's tax guns."

But was it effective? 

"Yes," Burgess says. "It is raising money that covers the city’s contribution to the Harborview intervention [program.]"

It did not, however, raise as much money as the city hoped it would. According to the Seattle Times, the city expected to raise $300,000 to $500,000 a year. In its first year, it raised less than $200,000.

And gun violence didn't drop in Seattle last year either. Gun violence rose slightly in 2017.  In King County, 54 of 75 homicide victims in 2017 died from gunshots — and 11 died from officer-involved shootings.

But Burgess says the goal wasn't necessarily to reduce the number of guns. The goal was to raise money for research into gun violence.

"Our focus was, let's begin to treat this as a public health crisis and do the research,"  Burgess says. Whether the interventions — which includes a case manager who works with the gunshot victim for a year — helps prevent shootings in the long term remain to be seen.

For now, it has seemed to impact the gun-selling business though. Outdoor Emporium, which sells about 80 percent of the guns in Seattle, threatened to move outside the city limits, noting the tax has cost them more than $2 million in its first year. (So far the company appears to have stayed put.)

In last year's Seattle City Council elections, two candidates suggested looking at doubling the city's gun tax — to $50 a purchase — in order to raise more revenue.

Burgess supports Stuckart's proposal — which would spend the money on mental health and suicide prevention. He notes that firearm injuries and death by suicide attempts are far more common than criminal assaults with firearms, and that suicide rates are higher in Eastern Washington.

"It sounds like Ben’s doing it well," Burgess says.

But ultimately, because of laws limiting local gun regulations in the state of Washington, cities' hands are largely tied. Burgess and Stuckart have been frustrated with the lack of state and national action on gun regulations.

"It’s just very frustrating to people that really, simple common sense measures cannot seem to get past the legislature or Congress," Burgess says.

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About The Author

Daniel Walters

A lifelong Spokane native, Daniel Walters is the Inlander's senior investigative reporter. But he also reports on a wide swath of other topics, including business, education, real estate development, land use, and other stories throughout North Idaho and Spokane County.He's reported on deep flaws in the Washington...