San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo is proposing a city ordinance that would require gun owners to purchase liability insurance or a pay a fee to mitigate the societal costs associated with gun-related violence and accidents. He presented his case in an opinion piece published in The Washington Post last week. The mayor’s proposal is based on a grossly flawed assertion that gun ownership is equivalent to automobile use on public roads.
Mr. Liccardo argues that because every U.S. state mandates that automobile drivers buy liability insurance, all gun owners in his city should be subject to the same requirement. By citing a study concluding that cars and guns each caused about 40,000 deaths nationally in 2017, he conflates car accidents with homicides. The mayor’s goal is to make law-abiding gun owners exclusively bear the financial cost of criminal gun violence.
If enacted into law, the mayor’s proposal would arbitrarily discriminate against residents who lawfully own firearms for sporting and home defense purposes. It would impose a drain on the city’s operating budget and distract lawmakers from the finding meaningful solutions that address the root causes of gun violence.
The idea of a mandatory gun liability law is not new, yet as Mr. Liccardo acknowledges, no city, county or state in the U.S. has enacted one. One reason lawmakers across the country have rejected the idea is because of the high probability that such a law would trigger an immediate and costly lawsuit that would be paid for by all taxpayers within the legislative jurisdiction.
The National Rifle Association (NRA) and other civil rights organizations would challenge the law on constitutional grounds. Driving an automobile on public roads is a privilege granted by the state DMV. Owning a firearm is a constitutional right that “shall not be infringed.” San Jose would almost certainly face a well-funded legal challenge that could last years, costing the city millions if Mr. Liccardo’s plan was adopted.
Whenever gun insurance proposals surface, major insurance industry organizations such as the American Insurance Association and the National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies routinely warn lawmakers that the concept violates basic insurance principles and is unworkable. Automotive liability insurance does not cover unlawful or dangerous activity. Death, injury or property damage resulting from excessive speed, recklessness or driving under the influence is not covered by automobile insurance. If a vehicle is stolen, the insurance policy does not cover injuries or damages subsequently caused by the thief. Gun liability insurance is not generally available, but if it were, it would obviously come with similar coverage limitations. It’s also worth noting that most gun-related accidents are covered by homeowners insurance.
If the mayor were to model his gun insurance law in a way that is consistent with mandatory automotive insurance laws, gun owners who store their firearms at home and use them outside the city limits or at privately operated gun ranges would be exempt from having to purchase it. Automotive insurance is only required to operate motor vehicles on public roads. You don’t need insurance to park a vehicle in your driveway or to operate it on private land.
The mayor admits that “crooks” won’t buy liability insurance or pay his fee. His law would be ignored by gang members, mass shooters and other criminals who commit acts of gun violence. Therefore, he wants to single out responsible, law-abiding gun owners to pick up the tab. That absurd notion is analogous to holding cancer patients with painkiller prescriptions financially responsible for the societal cost of the opioid abuse.
Tacitly recognizing that his proposal does nothing to address criminal gun violence, the mayor argues that his plan might reduce accidental gun deaths and injuries by incentivizing gun safety. He suggests that liability insurance policies (if offered) would likely include discounts to policyholders who take gun safety courses, install trigger locks and purchase gun safes. These are worthy objectives, yet the mayor conveniently ignores the fact that these measures are already deeply embedded in state and local law.
California has some of the strictest laws in the country pertaining to firearm safety testing and certification, transport and storage, and criminal liability in cases where improper storage results in harm to children. And under Mayor Liccardo’s leadership, the city of San Jose augmented state law with an even stricter gun storage ordinance in 2017.
Mr. Liccardo is surely aware of these facts. He’s no fool. The Saratoga native was educated at the exclusive Bellarmine College Preparatory school in San Jose, graduated from Georgetown, has a law degree from Harvard, is a former prosecutor, and is now mayor of the nation’s tenth largest city. He is a smart and ambitious politician. Perhaps it is his political ambition that prompted him to have his opinion piece published in The Washington Post, a national news outlet, rather than a news outlet in the city he represents.
San Jose City Councilmember Maya Esparza is a cousin of Stephen Romero, the 6-year-old boy killed in the July Gilroy Garlic Festival shooting which Mr. Liccardo referenced in his national media campaign. She offered her own thoughts on the timing and true motive of the mayor’s plan. “To me, it felt like the mayor was more interested in chasing headlines than committing to specific action that would make communities like mine safer,” she said.
Tobin Gilman is a San Jose resident, sporting clays enthusiast and local historian. He is the author of 19th Century San Jose in a Bottle and The McGlincy Killings in Campbell, California: An 1896 Unsolved Mystery.