How will San Jose enforce its proposed gun laws?
San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo introduced numerous local gun control measures on June 8, including requiring gun owners to have liability insurance. Photo by Lloyd Alaban.

San Jose lawmakers proposed first-in-the-nation gun measures in June, mandating that gun owners carry insurance and pay into a public fund to cover gun violence costs. But enforcing the measures might be more difficult than the city anticipates.

“The devil is in the details. Sure, gun violence is a very serious problem for the community and that’s true in San Jose as it is everywhere else,” said Philip Cook, a professor emeritus of public policy at Duke University and co-author of Gun Violence: The Real Costs, a book about the economic impacts of gun violence. “But insurance is not likely to affect much of it.”

Cook says most home insurance companies cover some of the damage that guns already do, such as when a gun accidentally discharges. Things that aren’t covered include deliberate misuses of guns, such as suicide by gun or homicides, which account for 97% of all gun deaths, according to 2017 numbers from the Pew Research Center.

Though the council approved exploring the gun control measures in June, the city attorney’s office still has to come back with an ordinance that is defensible amid legal challenges that gun rights groups promise to raise.

The measures are part of sweeping gun control reforms proposed by Mayor Sam Liccardo. He first introduced the idea of gun owner insurance in 2019 after the Gilroy Garlic Festival mass shooting. The pandemic shelved plans last year, but Liccardo revived his gun control measures in June just weeks after a mass shooting at a VTA rail yard killed nine VTA workers.

According to the proposed rules, the city will set up a portal where gun owners must submit their fees and upload proof of insurance. Owners who fail to comply will be charged with a civil offense, with the possibility of a fine and confiscation of their guns by the police. Certain people, such as retired or reserve police officers and holders of concealed weapon permits, will be exempt from the requirement.

Lawmakers have repeatedly stressed fees and insurance will not significantly burden gun owners, and that fee waivers for low-income residents will be available. But they have yet to figure out just how much insurance and annual fees will be.

“We will rely on reactive enforcement, in the same way that California relies on reactive enforcement for auto insurance mandates, i.e., if you get pulled over for speeding you have to show proof of insurance,” said Rachel Davis, Liccardo’s spokesperson.

Yet there is no federal or state gun registry, which means officials won’t know for sure who owns a gun—and in turn, who is paying into the fee mandates if owners fail to self-attest.

The city is already trying several measures to tie firearms to owners. Earlier in June, the city required all gun shop owners to conduct annual inventory inspections and to audio and video record all gun purchases. But those measures don’t keep track of stolen guns or private purchases. The San Jose Police Department has promised not to go door-to-door asking people for proof of insurance.

“During our normal course of duty, if we come across a firearm we will ask the owner if they have insurance,” said Police Chief Anthony Mata at the City Council’s June 30 meeting.

Also part of the city’s arsenal to fight gun violence: President Joe Biden—who met with Liccardo last month at a gun policy roundtable—promised to create five new “strike forces” to help local police stop the flow of illegal firearms in places such as the Bay Area, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.

Ted Miller, a researcher with the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, has worked with San Jose for the past two years to help draft a memo related to researching gun violence costs. Liccardo has frequently cited Miller’s research that says city taxpayers spent $442 million between 2013 and 2019 on costs associated with gun violence, including direct costs such as hospital stays and emergency response, but also indirect costs such as lost work, mental health appointments and impact on quality-of-life.

“The cost that the city tries to cover will be a small subset of those costs,” Miller told San José Spotlight. “Part of what we’re looking at are which costs are paid by the city of San Jose and what the city pays for them.”

The proposed gun control measures are expected to come back to the council for a final vote this fall.

Contact Lloyd Alaban at [email protected] or follow @lloydalaban on Twitter.

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