On New Year’s Day, San José became the first city in the nation to require gun owners to pay a yearly fee and carry gun liability insurance.
The ordinance requiring liability insurance was in effect Jan. 1, but the city has no data whether obtaining the insurance on an "honor system” has prompted any gun owners to act. None of the city's estimated 52,000 gun owners has been cited for violating the law.
Actual implementation of the equally voluntary fee portion of the ordinance is months away, according to the city.
Former San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo first proposed the ordinance requiring liability insurance for gun owners in 2019, less than a month after the mass shooting in Gilroy, but the final ordinance didn’t come up for a council vote until nearly two years later.
The council’s approval of the ordinance in January 2022 got immediate national headlines – mostly for the mayor. Liccardo wrote an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times and has been interviewed twice on National Public Radio.
A year ago, Liccardo praised the unprecedented council actions to require gun insurance and to charge all gun owners a “gun harm reduction fee” as “common-sense solutions to reduce gun harm, and to shift the financial burdens from taxpayers and victims, back to gun owners.”
The ordinance was officially approved on a second read on Feb. 8, 2022. An original effective date of Aug. 8 was pushed back to Jan. 1, 2023.
Liccardo estimated that the $25 fees would yield $1.3 million, to be collected by a non-profit foundation established to distribute all fee revenue to community-based programs focused on reducing gun violence. That revenue estimate was based on 100% participation of the city’s estimated 52,000 gun-owning households – one of every 15 city adults.
As of Feb. 28, no gun fee money has been collected, and no gun owner has been fined for failure to obtain gun insurance, according to the city manager’s office.
Owners or anyone in possession of any type of firearm are required to fill out a form and keep it with the weapon. There is no requirement to submit the form to any agency.
The city hasn’t written or distributed a Request for Proposals seeking a non-profit to administer the new fees, but said it expects the requests to be distributed sometime this spring. When asked for an estimate of when implementation of the fee system might occur, the manager’s office could only say “in the 2023 calendar year.”
The San Jose Police Department’s website has posted information on the “Gun Harm Ordinance,” including links to the ordinance and the “liability insurance attestation form.” The city manager published an updated version of the ordinance in October.
At the time of the 2022 council vote, Liccardo thanked national gun-control advocates including EveryTown for Gun Safety, Moms Demand Action, the Gifford Law Alliance and others “who work tirelessly to help us craft a constitutionally compliant path to mitigate the unnecessary suffering from gun harm in our community.”
He added: “I look forward to supporting the efforts of others to replicate these initiatives across the nation.”
Despite continuing increases in gun deaths across the nation, no other cities have followed San Jose’s lead, although some, including Los Angeles, are considering it. One state, New Jersey, in December approved a mandatory gun liability insurance, and three others – California, New York and Washington – are considering a similar law.
The Dhillon Law Group of San Francisco has filed a lawsuit on behalf of The National Association for Gun Rights, in conjunction with its legal arm the National Foundation for Gun Rights, against the City of San Jose, the San Jose City Council, and City Manager Jennifer Maguire, challenging the gun liability insurance ordinance.
Dudley Brown, president of the National Association for Gun Rights, at the time called the city plan a “ridiculous tax on the right to keep and bear arms.”
“To tax a constitutional right is absolutely preposterous and places an undue burden on law-abiding gun owners,” he said. Calling the San Jose ordinance “an ugly precedent for gun control laws,” he asked, “Do the members of the San Jose City Council actually believe this will do anything to stop crime?”
One month ago, National Public Radio’s “On Point,” hosted by Meghna Chakrabarti with WBUR, Boston, dealt specifically with that question. Liccardo was one of three guest panelists, along with journalist Jennifer Mascia and R.J. Lehmann, senior fellow at the International Center for Law and Economics.
“Insurance in and of itself is never going to cover the kinds of violent events that people imagine it would, because insurance can't cover things that you do on purpose," said Lehmann.
The San Jose ordinance, according to Lehmann, ”would not cover the overwhelming majority of firearms incidents that tend to be the subject of public concern.”
“The paradigmatic example of a tragic firearms accident—a child gets hold of an unsecured firearm and injures his or her sibling—would not be covered,” he said. “More importantly, coverage would not extend to intentional acts.”
“We found that San Jose had actually only had about three unintentional shooting deaths in the last seven years,” said Mascia in the panel discussion. “They all resulted in criminal charges, and they would not be covered under this policy. This policy does not cover anything that results in criminal charges.”
“And a lot of people don't realize when you use a gun, even if it's in self-defense, a lot of times there will be a prosecution, even if you're deemed justified at the end of this, law enforcement does tend to get involved,” she said. “And if that happens, this policy would not cover them.”
She said the real benefit of laws like the San Jose and New Jersey insurance requirement represent attempts to encourage “a cultural shift – and what you need for that, for it to be really, really effective on the insurance level is widespread adoption. And I think that's what they're hoping – that this will catch on.”
“The problem is,” Mascia continued, “it's only going to catch on in states that are run by Democrats, progressives. We're seeing there are states where gun laws are getting really stronger, and states where they're getting weaker. And the gun law states that are strong right now, they're more apt to try these policies. That way it would be really effective.”
"Otherwise they just don't see the point. I looked, I called insurance companies. They said that they're not going to be recalculating rates. Just like when you get a car, you call the insurance company, they give you a rate. The insurance companies are not, from what I understood reporting last year, going to be involved in that way. As a matter of fact, there's no requirement under this ordinance that you even call the insurance company and give them the serial number of your gun. For instance, like you'd call an insurance company and give them the VIN number of your car. That's not a requirement.
The complete text of the San Jose gun ordinance: