The mayor hopes it won’t be the last.
This article was originally published in Slate.
This is Sam Liccardo’s last year as mayor of San Jose, California, and one of the things he wanted to get done before leaving office is pass a few ordinances around guns. He’s really leaned in. First, San Jose required all gun purchases to be recorded, to ensure they’re legal. Then, just last month, the city instituted another rule, believed to be the first of its kind in the country. This ordinance will require gun owners to both have liability insurance and pay a fee to the city; that money will fund gun safety initiatives. It’s the beginning of a new kind of framework for gun safety—less about gun control, more about harm reduction. On Thursday’s episode of What Next, I spoke to Liccardo about how the ordinance will work and why he’s taken this approach. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Mary Harris: Did you expect that you were going to finish out your time as mayor talking about gun violence?
Sam Liccardo: Not really. Although I’m a criminal prosecutor by background, this is not a particularly violent city. In fact, I think we had the lowest homicide rate of any big city in the country last year.
So why the push?
Well, we’ve been rocked by three mass shootings in the last three years. And as I delve deeper into this subject, about guns and their impact in our community, you recognize that the headlines only tell a very small fraction of the harm and the devastation that families feel, whether it’s a suicide, which comprises the majority of gun-related deaths in our country, or unintentional shootings. I talked to a mom who lost a son that way just a couple years ago and, you know, about a little more than a third of emergency room admissions in this country result from unintentional shooting from guns.
I read that you started working on gun violence prevention in earnest after the shooting at the Gilroy Garlic Festival in July 2019.
I had a couple of encounters after that horrible event, one with the mother of one of the two children who had been shot, who just posed a question that stuck with me in my mind, which was, “Can’t you or can’t anybody do anything about this?” I had a much more contentious encounter at a memorial, it may have been a cousin or a friend who was Spanish-speaking, who confronted me very publicly and said, “Look, you guys talk a lot, but you don’t really do anything.” And she’s right. What’s the city doing about this? And that question just rang over and over in my head as I thought about what we can do as a city. Is there some space here for us to be able to stand up for our residents?
After the garlic festival, was the idea immediately how do we find a way to extract money from gun owners, and what would that look like?
Well, I had been thinking for some time about this idea of gun insurance, and it’s not a new idea. It’s not my idea. Other legislatures have proposed these things. … Then I realized, well, that’s nice, but it’s not actually going to generate the resources we need to actually reduce gun harm. And so came up with this notion of a fee along with it.
We all agree the Second Amendment protects the right for all of us to own or possess a gun, but it doesn’t require taxpayers to subsidize that right. And when people become aware of the fact that, hey, whether you own a gun or not, you’re actually paying for this, it starts to get folks thinking about, well, how could we better distribute the costs of gun ownership and gun harm?
And then in May 2021, you were dealing with another mass shooting right at the San Jose rail yard. Nine people were killed, plus the gunman died by suicide. How did that impact the conversation around this rule?
I think it provided further impetus for us to start to move forward. What was particularly poignant to me, beyond the horrific event that happened, was over the next 13 days, we looked at gun violence in our city. We saw eight separate deaths or serious injuries that resulted from gun-inflicted wounds over those next 13 days. Not a single one of them really made the headlines. And what became so apparent was that we see the coastline of gun violence in our communities, which are these horrible, devastating mass shootings. But the larger ocean is largely ignored.
Take the horrible shooting at the transit facility. Within weeks, one of the witnesses to that shooting had turned a gun on himself. He was a VTA, a transit employee, obviously forlorn over the loss of his friends and undoubtedly suffered from some kind of PTSD from seeing this shooting, and he shot himself. Now, that was a preventable loss.
Could we have gotten to him with mental health treatment? Could we have gotten to him with suicide prevention initiatives? I can’t know for sure if we could have changed the trajectory of the devastation that that family felt, but I sure would have liked to have tried.
So the City Council voted last month on this ordinance, and it requires gun owners in San Jose to carry liability insurance and to pay an annual $25 fee, a harm reduction fee. The fee seems a little bit new to me. The insurance seems like something people may already have, through homeowners insurance or something like that. So tell me how this ordinance will change things.
Yeah, all fair. So let me start with the insurance. It is true that many homeowners and renters already have liability insurance for possession of guns. They may not be reporting the guns to the insurance companies as they ought to be. It all depends, obviously, on the policy. But this is insurance that’s widely available. We want to make sure that, first of all, folks have it, because that’s important to compensate those who are injured and harmed by guns, but also because when you notify the insurance company, the insurance company can start to ask questions like, do you have a gun safe? Do you have a trigger lock? Have you taken gun safety classes? And those kinds of actions can help to reduce the premium for the insured, just as drivers got safe driver discounts on our premiums.
We got discounts back in the day when they came out with anti-lock brakes and airbags and other kinds of devices that have made driving safer. In fact, we’ve seen on a per-mile basis that the fatalities related to automobiles have dropped about 80 percent over the last five decades. And a big part of that is insurance companies that are incentivizing people to be safer, to drive safer cars. So in the same way, we’re hoping that insurance companies will really get in the game, roll up their sleeves, not just obviously as San Jose does this, but hopefully as more cities and states do it.
The $25 fee, what will that go toward? Who decides what it goes toward?
We’re forming a 501(c)(3) foundation, which is going to receive the dollars, and the board, which will be comprised of a host of folks, including, for example, Stanford professors, an epidemiologist who has been focused on gun harm, and nonprofit experts who understand domestic violence prevention programs, suicide prevention. We’ve invited and at least one member of a gun group has actually joined this effort to create this nonprofit, because we want organizations representing gun owners to be at the table, helping us to understand, how do we best communicate, how do we best invest? And overwhelmingly, under the ordinance, these dollars are going to serve occupants of gun-owning households or significant others who are in relationship with those who own guns.
Well, a letter will go out to all gun-owning households and say, “Hey, you got a gun. Here’s a lot of services that are available to you—mental health, suicide prevention, domestic violence prevention, gun safety classes, whatever it might be that is evidence-based that shows that we can reduce gun violence. Here’s a host of services, and by the way here’s your obligation. You’ve got to pay a $25 fee.”
So it’s almost like joining a club.
Yeah, and look, I don’t pretend to believe these are overwhelmingly folks who are willing to want to do this. I recognize that this is by government fiat, and many would prefer not to pay the fee. But if we’re in the business of reducing harm and devastation from guns, you go to where the risk is.
How much are you expecting that people will pay this fee? Is there an enforcement mechanism? What happens if they don’t?
So it’s a civil requirement. We have not created a criminal sanction here, for various reasons. So anyone who doesn’t comply will pay a fine. In terms of enforcement, how that happens, what we see right now in the judicial landscape—the Supreme Court looks like they’re about to invalidate New York’s concealed carry restrictions. California also had concealed carry permit requirements. And when those get pushed aside, as we expect they will, we’re going to have a lot more law enforcement.
Encountering people with guns, out on the street, in bars and nightclubs—you can imagine a host of different venues where a police officer would really like to have the ability to remove a gun from a potentially combustible situation. For example, there’s a bar brawl and they’re patting down everybody and someone’s got a gun. “Have you paid your fee? You have insurance?” “No.” OK, well, there’s an opportunity for us to remove the gun. And then when the gun owner comes back and demonstrates that they comply with the law and they’re a lawful gun owner, they get their gun back. But in the meantime, you’ve taken a gun out of a bar brawl. And that’s not a bad thing.
I watched the City Council meeting when the ordinance passed. You had dozens of people calling in to comment from all over the spectrum. The main criticism I heard is that this law is taxing a constitutional right and I don’t get taxed for my freedom of speech. And I wonder what you’d say to someone who feels like their rights are being infringed on by a law like this one.
Yeah, I don’t blame anyone for being emotional about this. These are really important issues that go to the core of what we believe about freedoms and rights and our own safety. But I’d say this. First, it’s a fee, it’s not a tax, and I won’t go into the details about what the difference is, but the reality is that in this country, there have been taxes on guns and ammunition since at least 1919, and they’ve been upheld by the courts. So the fact that there’s a constitutional right attached somewhere to the exercise of a particular activity doesn’t mean it can’t be regulated, taxed, or have a fee imposed. Newspapers pay taxes, even though that’s an important First Amendment right. For the litigants who filed a lawsuit against us who were exercising their Seventh Amendment rights, they paid a filing fee at the courthouse.
These are all constitutional rights. They’re all important. The question is not whether or not government can regulate them or not, or post fees or taxes. The question is whether or not those pose barriers that are unduly onerous to the exercise of those rights. And, given the fact that buying a gun in this country costs hundreds if not thousands of dollars, depending on the model you take, a $25 fee is probably not terribly onerous, it seems to me. Nor is insurance, which can be obtained at little or no additional cost.
Some constituents said things like you’re making law-abiding citizens pay for the bad actions of other people, that this isn’t fair. Like, I’m doing everything right, and yet I’m going to be made to pay more for people who aren’t handling a gun safely. What would you say to that?
I guess I would say it’s not fair to 250,000 families in my city that don’t own guns, but still have to pay taxes to respond to the harm inflicted by those who do own guns. And as I mentioned, an awful lot of that harm is inflicted by people who may be well intentioned and may be law-abiding. But they own guns. So we have to recognize that the burden, the financial burden, is shifted on taxpayers who certainly don’t benefit, because they don’t own guns in any way and in many ways are often harmed.
You’ve been anticipating a barrage of lawsuits over this ordinance. How are you getting ready for this barrage of lawsuits, which is already beginning?
Yeah, one suit’s been filed, there may be others. The complaint we saw that was filed in court a few days ago was very much what we’d expected. We’d been working for a year and a half with teams of lawyers from great organizations throughout the country, like Brady United and Everytown and Giffords, that have been helping us understand the nature of the legal challenges we’ll be facing, and we certainly crafted the ordinance in various ways to try to ensure this would be lawful and upheld. We’re fortunate to have a private law firm that stepped up immediately and said we’re willing to represent the city pro bono, so taxpayers aren’t on the hook. The big issue will probably be attorneys’ fees—that would be the cost and the risk that we have.
You say the lawsuit’s what you expected. What do you mean by that?
I’ve often said, in the world of gun regulation, no good deed goes unlitigated. I’ve had a lot of mayors approaching me, legislators from the statehouse, approaching me, saying, “Hey, we want to do it too. We just got to figure out, is it going to get through the courts?” Well, we understand that’s the nature. It’s all going to get challenged because that seems to be, in a deeply divided country, the way to resolve difficult political issues.
You don’t sound concerned.
Well, look, I’m a recovering lawyer. And so I feel fairly confident about our position. I think that the Constitution certainly allows cities and states to do this. At the same time, I also recognize we critically need innovation in this space. This is sort of the Silicon Valley spirit. Nothing that has been tried is working. You can read the headlines and figure that out pretty quickly. You look at the data about gun deaths in this country—it’s atrocious compared to any other industrialized nation on the planet. It’s critical for us to try something different.
This ordinance makes a lot of sense for all the reasons that you’ve laid out. But also, it seems to me that in order to really work and have a lasting impact, it needs much more support, and not just financial support. But one city putting in place these kinds of rules—it’s like a drop in the bucket.
Well, Mary, you’re right. We’re not doing this because we think San Jose is suddenly going to stop gun violence by itself. We’re doing this because we want the state of California to be doing this. We want every state to be doing this, so that we view gun insurance in the same way that every driver views auto insurance. This is simply part of the responsibility of having this very deadly instrument, whether it’s an automobile or a gun, in one’s possession.
We need to do something. We need to do more. And it’s not just this idea. There are gonna be other innovative ideas in other cities throughout the country, and we encourage all of them. As mayors, we often steal each other’s good ideas, and that’s appropriate. I’m confident others will join us just as soon as they know that there’s a path. And so we’re going to blaze that path.