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Regional Interests

San Jose Has Big Ambitions for Gun Control, But How Would The Measures Actually Work?

This week, San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo was among six local government leaders sitting at a roundtable discussion with President Biden and other White House officials to discuss their plans to reduce gun violence in their cities.

Mayor Sam Liccardo has pushed for gun control laws that would curb gun violence and crimes in San Jose since before the Gilroy Garlic Festival mass shooting in 2019. Following another one this year that left 10 dead at a VTA rail yard in downtown San Jose, Liccardo’s multi-point platform that would further regulate gun ownership has gained political traction. The question now is whether local municipal ordinances can survive inevitable challenges in the courts.  

“The President demonstrated a genuine commitment to partnering with cities to stem the tide of gun violence, and to scaling innovative solutions that are emerging in our cities,” Liccardo said. “I look forward to rolling up our sleeves with our federal partners. We have much work to do, and lives hang in the balance.”

San Jose is looking to spend $20 million from President Biden’s American Rescue Plan and FEMA dollars to fund the Resilience Corps Program, which would provide employment for at-risk youth in the city. The U.S. Department of Justice is also launching a gun trafficking strike force with Liccardo’s support centered on the Bay Area in San Jose to stem the flow of guns used in crimes.

An Ambitious Vision for Gun Control

The gun control ordinances City Council passed last month include various strategies to combat gun violence and crime, including requiring licensed gun dealers to videotape their sales. City officials believe this could mitigate straw purchases, which is when someone legally buys a firearm on behalf of someone who cannot legally make that purchase themselves.

Two other proposals, in particular, have gained national attention because they’ve never been tried before:

Mandating gun liability insurance for gun owners to incentivize owners to take safety classes, store their firearms safely and to practice safe behavior with their guns. Requiring gun owners to pay an annual fee to offset what taxpayers spend in the aftermath of gun violence.

Ted Miller, a researcher with the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation (PIRE), has been working with the city to draft the measures. His preliminary research found San Jose taxpayers spent $442 million between 2013 and 2019 on costs associated with gun violence, including emergency response, victim support and tax revenue lost when a victim can’t work.

“Taxpayers don’t think about it that way,” Miller said. “Many taxpayers don’t even realize that most emergency medical response is paid for by their local government, not by insurance.”

But because these proposals have never been tried before, there are real questions about how they’ll be enforced. For example, California law requires most gun sales to go through licensed firearms dealers who are required to electronically report information about sales and transactions to the California DOJ. But that information doesn’t include private sales or guns that might have been stolen. Moreover, there isn’t a gun registry where officials can look up who has what gun in their home, which means enforcing that annual fee gun owners would have to pay or making sure every gun owner has insurance for their firearms could become nearly impossible to enforce.

In the Tweet above, San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo (second from left) meets with President Joe Biden to discuss gun crimes.

“There are practical questions about whether this system can operate in the absence of that type of gun registry,” said John Donohue, an economist and professor of law at Stanford. “If you’ve got a system that is only enforceable through police contact, then you might be shifting the burden of the particular regulation.”

San Jose Police have said they won’t be knocking on people’s doors and asking to see registration for firearms. Instead, if police come across a firearm in a search, they will ask to see insurance papers.

How Gun Owners of Color Could Be Affected

Enforcing these laws purely through a police contact concerns P.B. Gomez, the founder of the Latino Rifle Association (LRA). He worries that because people of color and low-income people disproportionately encounter police more than other groups, they could be pinched for these laws more than affluent or white gun owners.

Gomez, a Mexican American, is keenly aware of how people of color are perceived in some circles in gun ownership communities. He created the group in April of 2020, during the height of the pandemic.

“You were seeing, across the country, rising rates of gun ownership,” Gomez said. “Most interestingly, rising rates of gun ownership for demographics who didn’t traditionally embrace gun ownership: Black people, Latino people.”

Gomez wanted to create a space for people new to the world of firearms to ask questions freely and educate themselves. Gomez says he’s skeptical about San Jose’s proposals.

“They’re trying to shrink, by any means, the [number] of gun owners and to make gun ownership more of an inconvenience. That will dissuade people from pursuing it,” Gomez said.

Gomez is concerned that this kind of enforcement strategy will impact the poorest residents and people of color by providing police with one more excuse to search people, charge them with minor offenses and then confiscate their weapons.

San Jose’s proposal does include a waiver for that annual fee and the insurance plan if some gun owners can’t afford it. And in the event a gun owner doesn’t have their insurance or hasn’t paid their annual fee, they would receive a fine and a misdemeanor. City officials argue that, while it hasn’t been tried before, a gun liability insurance mandate is a common-sense measure.

In the Tweet above, P.B. Gomez takes issue with the rising cost of gun laws.

Myriad companies have offered this kind of insurance to gun owners, particularly those with concealed carry permits, for many years. For a few hundred dollars a year, gun owners can purchase liability insurance for their firearms.

Still, Gomez doesn’t think it makes sense for people on the lower end of the economic spectrum.

“Working-class people in America cannot afford it. It’s just a de facto ban on people owning guns below a certain income level,” Gomez said.

The Inevitable Legal Challenges

But some experts wonder whether the nuances of how these laws will be enforced matter if these laws can’t survive the courts.

Gun rights activists have already threatened legal challenges to these ordinances if they pass.

“We recognize that we’re going to face litigation,” Mayor Liccardo said. “We know that in the world of reasonable gun regulation, no good deed goes unlitigated.”

If the legal challenges reach the United States Supreme Court, John Donohue isn’t counting on the proposals holding up, especially against the National Rifle Association (NRA).

“The justices that Donald Trump put on the court were carefully vetted by the NRA and sometimes very strongly proposed to Trump by the NRA,” Donohue said. “Can [the proposals] be adopted into law and will [they] survive the inevitable challenges?”

San Jose’s City Attorney is working on making the proposals as legally air-tight as possible before they go before the City Council in September for a final vote.

Copyright 2021 KQED