What American Cities Can Learn from Seattle in the Fight Against Gun Violence

For a very long time—you can count in decades, not years—progressives have been on a defensive footing in the battle against gun violence. In part, this is because the gun lobby has established a preemption system, in which conservative state legislative bodies prevent cities and counties from passing their own gun laws. As we know, cities are where progressive agendas begin in America, so preemption has handcuffed progressives in a very real way.

But there are ways around those constraints; Seattle is proving that local lawmakers can find creative solutions to preemptions. Yesterday, thanks to the hard work of Council President Tim Burgess, the City Council unanimously passed a pair of bills that increase gun safety in Seattle. One establishes a gun violence tax on retailers—”$25 for every firearm sold and $0.05 for every round of ammunition sold”—that will be added to a fund benefitting “prevention programs and research intended to reduce the burden of gun violence on Seattle residents and neighborhoods.” The other requires gun owners to report lost or stolen guns to the Seattle Police Department “within 24 hours of discovery” or else they’ll “face a civil penalty of up to $500.”

Everybody helped to make this a reality, but Burgess led the fight.

Everybody helped to make this a reality, but Burgess led the fight.

Burgess, to his great credit, worked with his staff and city attorneys to create innovative new policies that stand up to preemption. “City government can and must pursue innovative gun safety measures that save lives and save money,” Burgess announced in a press release. “As it has in other areas of policy, Seattle can lead the way in local solutions.”

All the members of the City Council and Mayor Ed Murray deserve credit for their full-throated support for this legislation, but Burgess’s leadership was invaluable. As a former police officer, he’s uniquely positioned to understand the problem of gun violence, and he’s been working on it for a long time now, doing the hard policy writing and thinking needed to change the conversation.

Let’s be clear: these two bills are not going to solve gun violence in Seattle once and for all. This is a complicated issue and it will require a complex set of solutions. But these policies will make things better, and they will save lives. Revenue from the taxes—an estimated $300,000 to $500,000 per year—will benefit education and research to address the public health impact of gun violence.

A large number of firearms used in crimes are stolen, and if those stolen guns are not reported to the proper authorities, there’s simply no way to know what’s out there. These policies will help police officers do their jobs and solve crimes.

Hopefully more American cities will follow Seattle’s lead in the fight against gun violence. Preemption makes the passage of gun safety laws more difficult, but the City Council and Mayor Murray have proven that it’s not impossible. Lawmakers around the country should look to Burgess as an inspiration in how to use creativity, thoughtfulness, and leadership to buck the status quo and upset the conventional wisdom on gun safety.



Paul Constant
Paul Constant has written about politics, books, and film for Newsweek, The Progressive, the Utne Reader, and alternative weeklies around the country.