Matt Driscoll

Let the gun lobby rant. Taxing firearms and ammunition sales in Tacoma is right thing

Tacoma City Councilman Ryan Mello likened it to poking a bear in the eye.

He would know, since he’s the guy holding the stick.

Mello was referring to his proposal to tax firearms and ammunition in Tacoma, which he first discussed back in August. Next week, it’s scheduled to debut for real, in front of the full council, including everything that entails.

Part of what that entails for Mello is a whole lot of angry, largely boilerplate emails from folks convinced he’s trying to take away their guns.

That’s no surprise, since the National Rifle Association — and potentially other, smaller gun rights advocacy groups — have been agitating against the proposed tax for months.

By the time we spoke midday Thursday, Mello said he had received roughly 25 irate electronic messages.

The day before, it was 35, “which is a lot for Tacoma,” he said.

“There’s no sign of it letting down, either,” Mello added.

All of this comes with the territory, of course, and Mello knows it.

The push back — and the gun lobby mobilization effort — was expected.

To which I say: Tacoma, poke that bear.

Yes, I think the tax on firearms and ammo can potentially do some good, providing a small revenue source to pay for gun-violence prevention programming — which can’t hurt.

Anything helps.

But you know what? There’s another part of me that’s just so damn sick and tired of seeing the same tragedies — and the same lame reactions, defenses and non-responses — that I’m simply ready for the city to do anything it can.

If that essentially amounts to a middle finger directed at the organized gun lobby — whose sole mission at this point seems to be thwarting any and all common-sense gun regulation — so be it.

I’m done with #ThoughtsAndPrayers. I’m over not “politicizing” senseless gun deaths. And I’m tired of watching the all-powerful gun lobby flex every time anywhere — even a city the size of Tacoma — tries to challenge it.

Over. It.

So Poke. Poke. Poke.

Chances are, with the first reading of the proposed tax scheduled for Tuesday, you’re going to be hearing about it.

There will be news coverage in the coming weeks. The gun blogs will pounce. There will be all sorts of predictable arguments thrown about.

People will claim the tax won’t really help, or that businesses and gun buyers will just go elsewhere, or that the tax will prevent low-income folks from being able to defend themselves from all the dangers in the night.

Been there. Done that.

What should we focus on? How about the reality of what’s being discussed in Tacoma, and what it would do and mean.

First and foremost, the proposed tax — which would add $25 to retail firearms and a few cents per round of ammunition, bringing in an estimated $40,000 a year — would fund citywide anti-gun violence initiatives, Mello said. At this point, what that would look like remains to be decided, but Mello mentioned the possibility of after-school programs and free trigger locks.

It’s cliche, of course, but he argues that if the effort saves just one life, it will be worth it — and he’s absolutely right.

In Seattle, as Daniel Beekman of the Times has reported, the city’s guns and ammo tax funds gun-violence research at Harborview Medical Center. In 2017, the tax brought in roughly $93,000, down from $104,000 the year prior.

It’s not much — lower than originally anticipated, in fact — but it’s something. For perspective, as the Times notes, the city of Seattle says treating gunshot victims costs taxpayers millions of dollars each year.

When it comes to legality, Mello says, the tax is modeled after Seattle’s — which passed in 2015 and survived a Supreme Court challenge in 2017. This modeling was by design, he said, hopefully keeping the city out of litigation. The strategy included dropping the idea of taxing high-velocity, or “hollow point” bullets, which was originally floated.

Mello also believes there are implications beyond Tacoma worth considering, which is where the strategy gets interesting.

We know a guns and ammo tax was supported in uber-liberal, tax-happy Seattle. No surprise there. But if smaller, blue-collar Tacoma passes an identical one, might it inspire cities, large and small, around the region to do the same?

Mello thinks it’s possible.

Me? Well, I might be slightly more skeptical, but here’s the thing:

I wouldn’t mind trying, just to see what happens.

Could a poke become a jab? Seems worth a try.

The only question left is whether the Tacoma City Council will have the courage to wield the stick.

Let’s hope.

Asked about the reaction he’s received, Mello says, “It demonstrates to me that the gun lobby has power.”

He believes the lobby is “very concerned that if Tacoma is successful in a firearms and ammunition tax, then it shows the way for other cities, and other cities will do it.”

“I think they’re scared to death, no pun intended, of this concept taking root,” he added.

I don’t know if that’s true, but my fingers are crossed.

Poke. Poke. Poke. Poke.

Matt Driscoll is a reporter and The News Tribune’s metro news columnist. A McClatchy President’s Award winner, Driscoll lives in Central Tacoma with his wife and three children. He’s passionate about the City of Destiny and strives to tell stories that might otherwise go untold.
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