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San Jose will require gun owners to have liability insurance

a  memorial for the rail yard shooting victims in front of San Jose City Hall
San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo at a memorial for rail yard shooting victims in May.
(Haven Daley / Associated Press)

San Jose approved a novel ordinance Tuesday that will require gun owners to purchase liability insurance and pay an annual fee for their firearms.

The ordinance is the first of its kind to be enacted by a major U.S. city.

Sam Liccardo, mayor of the Silicon Valley city of 1 million, introduced the ordinance last summer after a transit agency employee killed nine co-workers and himself.

An investigation into the San Jose attack indicates a targeted attack and a long-angry gunman, as the families and friends of the nine victims grieve.

“It’s easy to say it’s not going to stop a crook who’s intent on killing somebody. Well, I challenge anyone to magically craft that ordinance that will. It doesn’t exist,” Liccardo said before the City Council unanimously approved the ordinance Tuesday night. “But we can reduce gun harm when we see the expanse of gun harm and how broad it is in all its forms.”

The insurance must cover losses or damages from accidental or negligent use of a firearm, including death, injury or property damage. An owner would be considered liable for a lost gun until reporting the loss to police, according to the ordinance.

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The ordinance also requires gun owners to invest in safes, trigger locks and safety classes.

The City Council will hold a second vote on Feb. 8 to ratify the ordinance. It would then go into effect in August.

California law bans the sale and possession of magazines that hold more than 10 rounds. The state also has a red flag law that allows police to seize a person’s guns based on a restraining order.

Councilmember David Cohen said the city pushed ahead with its own ordinance because of a lack of federal legislation.

“Unfortunately, due to inaction and obstruction, particularly on the federal level on gun violence, it is incumbent upon us to do things that are bold and take these actions,” Cohen said.

The annual fee will amount to roughly $25 and affect around 50,000 households, according to city data.

The money will help fund city programs, including mental health, suicide prevention, domestic violence prevention and gun safety. The city estimates it spends $39 million each year to respond to gun violence, including emergency services, victim assistance and criminal investigations.

In San Jose, an average of 206 people were killed or seriously injured in shootings each year from 2012 to 2018.

The ordinance contains some exceptions for active or retired police officers and concealed weapon permit holders.

At Tuesday’s council meeting, which lasted nearly five hours, gun owners called the city’s approach shortsighted and a violation of their 2nd Amendment rights.

“This ordinance is only punishing us lawful gun owners,” San Jose resident Michael Green said. “We have done nothing to harm you people. We are the most peaceful people of them all.”

Another speaker, Kirk Vartan, said, “Making lawful gun owners pay for the misdeeds of criminals is illogical. It’s like holding moderate drinkers responsible for drunk drivers.”

Supporters of the ordinance called it sensible and said it would help reduce suicides, domestic violence and school gun scares.

Katie Wilkinson, who lives near San Jose State, said she has been under lockdown three times because of reports of guns on campus.

“Gun violence costs our city so much in terms of lost lives, as well as economic costs,” Wilkinson said.

Volunteers with the national anti-gun violence group Moms Demand Action also spoke in support of the gun ordinance.

“We all want a safer San Jose, safer California and a safer nation,” said Varsha Damul, a volunteer with the group who frequently visits San Jose.

Sam Paredes with Gun Owners of California said the group plans to sue the city after the ordinance is ratified next month.

The National Assn. for Gun Rights, a Colorado-based nonprofit, and Mark Sikes, a San Jose resident and gun owner, filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday against the city, City Manager Jennifer Maguire and the City Council.

They allege the ordinance violates the 1st, 2nd, 5th and 14th amendments to the U.S. Constitution; state and local laws; and government codes.

“San Jose’s imposition of a tax, fee, or other arbitrary cost on gun ownership is intended to suppress gun ownership without furthering any government interest,” the lawsuit says. “In fact, the penalties for nonpayment of the insurance and fees include seizure of the citizen’s gun. The ordinance is, therefore, patently unconstitutional.”

Sikes and the nonprofit are asking a judge to grant preliminary and permanent injunctions that would stop the city from enforcing the ordinance, and declare the ordinance unconstitutional under the U.S. and California constitutions. They are also asking for a judge to issue “nominal damages and order any other relief this court deems necessary and proper.”

Liccardo said several attorneys have offered to defend the city pro bono against a lawsuit.

He likened gun insurance to auto insurance.

“Now, we know that law abiding drivers might benefit from auto insurance because it incentivizes us all to drive more safely, invest in safer cars, anti-lock brakes, and a host of other measures,” he said.

Times staff writer Gregory Yee contributed to this report.


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