Own a gun in San Jose? Get ready to pay for it
San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo speaks about his proposed gun control legislation at NextDoor Solutions in San Jose on Jan. 24. NextDoor Solutions Executive Director Esther Peralez-Diekmann and San Jose Councilmember David Cohen stand in the background. Photo by Jana Kadah.

San Jose is now the first city in the nation to mandate gun owners to have liability insurance and pay an annual fee in an effort to curb gun violence.

On Tuesday, councilmembers voted to approve the gun control rules requiring San Jose residents who own guns to pay an annual $25 fee per household and purchase gun insurance that specifically covers losses or damages resulting from “any negligent or accidental use of the firearm” in six months, according to the ordinance.

After an intense five-hour discussion filled with emotive public comment and critical probing from councilmembers, the insurance liability mandate passed 10-1, with Councilmember Dev Davis as the lone dissenting vote. The annual gun owner fee passed with eight votes, with Councilmembers Matt Mahan and Pam Foley and Davis in opposition.

With roughly 50,000-55,000 San Jose households with guns, the annual fee is expected to bring in about $1.3 million per year.

San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, who introduced this legislation in 2019 after the mass shooting at the Gilroy Garlic Festival, said the goal is to mitigate harm inflicted by gun violence and shift the financial burden of gun education and victim services to gun owners instead of all taxpayers. Things stalled when COVID hit in March 2020, but Liccardo brought the idea back in May 2021 following the mass shooting at the VTA light rail yard.

“When we think about the horrible mass shootings, I don’t pretend to know that we could have stopped it or not. But if in fact, we could have delivered some mental health services, there may have been a chance,” Liccardo said. “That’s the point of this (legislation).”

The laws are the latest in San Jose’s local gun control measures, including requiring gun shops in June 2021 to record all firearm purchases. Buying a firearm from or inside a residence is also prohibited.

Unknowns

The legislation shifted significantly since its inception. Originally, the annual fees collected were designed to offset the nearly $8 million annual cost the city incurs responding to firearm incidents.

Now, the roughly $1.3 million expected to be collected annually from the fees will be sent to a nonprofit to distribute funds to other organizations providing “evidence-based solutions,” like suicide prevention, mental health and addiction services and firearm safety training or victim compensation.

The problem for many councilmembers, however, is the nonprofit has not been created yet, which means there are a lot of unknowns—including how funds will be collected, potential legal challenges, the role of the nonprofit and its likely impact, and the city’s role—or lackthereof—in oversight.

“These kinds of fees are typically paid by a customer who is asking for, or at least wants the service provided,” Mahan said. “In my interaction with many, many constituents in District 10. That’s just not been the sentiment.”

Even those who support the fee are seemingly uncomfortable with the uncertainty. Councilmember Maya Esparza said such a program would not help residents in her district who often deal with gun violence.

“I think communities that have lived with this violence for a very long time would be left out of a lot of the programs and services that were being offered,” Esparza said.

Frustrations and challenges

Residents also shared a myriad of concerns about the insurance and fee. Roughly 51 people spoke in opposition, saying it violates the constitution, misses the mark on solving gun violence and punishes legal gun owners who often do not commit these crimes.

“I have a right to keep and bear arms as I see fit to protect myself and property,” resident Wally Gardner said. “A law abiding citizen should not have to pay for this right just like they don’t have to pay or should not pay for the First Amendment rights to speak, assemble and worship freely.”

About 26 residents voiced support for the gun control measures and praised the council for its “innovative approach.”

“I am a resident and an educator who’s been locked down for potential guns on campus right across the street at San Jose State several times,” biological sciences professor Katie Wilkinson said. “Gun violence costs our city so much in terms of lost lives, as well as economic costs and this ordinance is a very innovative approach to try to address some of those costs, as well as to incentivize safer gun ownership and behavior.”

The insurance and fee are contested by many gun rights activists and owners—some of which have threatened litigation. Liccardo expects legal backlash, but said he has the support of the city attorney, national organizations such as Everytown for Gun Safety, and Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy, LLP who will provide pro bono legal services to defend the laws.

“There have been a lot of concerns about imposing fees and constitutional rights, and I can assure you there are already a lot of taxes upheld with the purchase of guns and ammunition,” Liccardo said. “The question is whether or not there’s a fee or an obstacle to exercise that right, and I believe this is not going to be a significant obstacle.”

Sam Parades, executive director of Gun Owners of California, told San José Spotlight prior to the vote he and a “dream team” of Second Amendment advocates plan to sue the city.

While not opposed to the government funding programs to address gun violence, Parades said the solution should be rooted in solving the sources of violence—which to him means addressing poverty, mental illness and access to education. He said the new laws won’t fix the problems both gun rights advocates and the city alike are looking to solve.

“This will have zero to less than zero impact on reducing gun violence or paying for the results of gun violence,” Parades said. “There isn’t an insurance policy that exists out there that would cover that.”

Esparza and Davis echoed similar sentiment, noting insurance agents they spoke to said only accidental firings outside of a household could potentially be covered. Negligence or criminal behavior would not.

“I spoke with two insurance agents including my own from different companies and neither of them said that negligence use is specifically covered in their policies,” Davis said. “I’m still not certain how we can require a specific type of insurance that does not exist.”

Contact Jana Kadah at [email protected] or @Jana_Kadah on Twitter.

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