Cook County’s special gun tax, aimed at curbing taxpayer expenses tied to gun violence, kicks in Monday despite a lawsuit by firearms stores and owners to shut it down.
Championed by County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and approved by county commissioners as part of the larger 2013 county budget, the new $25 tax on each gun sale in suburban Cook County goes into effect as a larger national debate on gun control takes center stage.
In proposing the tax, Preckwinkle said she was looking for a way to defray the costs of gun violence on county taxpayers — whether it’s in the public health system where the injured are treated or the local criminal justice system.
Expected to bring in just $600,000 in revenues this year, the tax is more symbolic when you consider the county is a $3 billion operation that includes the public hospitals and health clinics as well as the jail and local criminal justice system.
Last month, a group of Chicago area firearms dealers and owners — including the well-known Chuck’s Gun Shop in Riverdale — sued over the tax, saying it violates their constitutional rights. They asked a judge for an injunction, but Cook County court records show no action has been taken in the case.
In their lawsuit, the gun owners and firearms dealers argue: “Proponents of the tax have admitted that its purpose is to curb the number of firearms in circulation. The Tax thus is intended to deter individuals from exercising their fundamental right to keep and bear arms guaranteed by the Second and the Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution and . . . the Illinois Constitution,” the lawsuit states.
In discussing the tax, Preckwinkle and her staff have repeatedly cited a study that showed nearly 30 percent of guns found at crime scenes in Chicago were sold legally at suburban Cook County shops.
But at least one Cook County Commissioner is concerned the county may spend a lot of time — and money — to fight the lawsuit.
“I supported this because it was a compromise to get rid of the bullet tax,” Commissioner Edwin Reyes said of the nickel-a-bullet tax Preckwinkle initially proposed but later holstered. She withdrew the measure after complaints the tax on a box of bullets would cost more than the bullets themselves.
Reyes, a Northwest Side Democrat, said it’s important for the county’s legal advisers — that is, the Cook County state’s attorney’s office — to examine what it may mean if the county loses the case.
“If the state’s attorney comes back and says it’s going to cost us a whole lot of money — way over the $600,000 to fight it — we may want to rethink it,” Reyes said, concerned that it would cost too much taxpayer money to pay attorneys and related court costs to fight it.
And by “rethink,” Reyes said, he believes it should be repealed if the litigation gets too expensive.
“I would be for it — we’re not in a position to be throwing good money after bad money,” he said.
Commissioner Larry Suffredin, a North Side and suburban Democrat, said the state’s attorney is already on retainer to the county board and it wouldn’t cost extra taxpayer dollars. Plus Suffredin, an attorney, says the county is on solid legal ground.
“I think we will win this lawsuit quickly and it [the tax] will be in place for a long time,” he said.
Kristen Mack, a spokeswoman for Preckwinkle, said in an emailed statement after the lawsuit was filed: “When we proposed this tax in the fall, we expected it to be contentious. President Preckwinkle maintains she won’t make decisions on the basis of whether or not somebody is going to sue the county, otherwise we’d never make bold proposals.”