America’s battle over guns and gun restrictions is heating up. A major Supreme Court decision on the Second Amendment last year ignited movements across the country in some cases to crack down on gun ownership, in other cases to loosen up gun controls. Amid the debate, San Jose, California became the first city in the nation to pass a law requiring gun insurance and annual gun fees paid to a nonprofit. And other cities and states are watching to see how this turns out.
In San Jose, California, the public gun firing range is full on a Saturday afternoon.
Under a first-of-its-kind law being eyed nationally, San Jose gun owners are in the crosshairs, targeted for a marked change in how the local government regulates their weapons.
The San Jose approach quantifies the financial cost of emergency calls involving gunfire. Estimates put the price of police and emergency calls at about $8 million a year for the city. Add to that the cost of medical care, mental health and victim services, and criminal justice, injuries involving guns hit the entire community in the wallet in a major way that advocates say is the responsibility of gun owners.
San Jose’s new law requires people who own firearms to carry gun liability insurance and pay an annual fee of $25. That includes for shotguns and hunting rifles. The fees are to go to a nonprofit for programs to prevent injuries involving gunfire. And gun owners must keep documents proving insurance and fee payment with each firearm at all times, presented to police upon demand.
Sam Liccardo: So we had to do something that would recognize the reality that guns are in our streets. They're in our community. How do we make gun ownership safer? So that's the premise we really started with.
Sam Liccardo is the brains behind the gun measure. He devised the ammunition to support it as mayor of San Jose, a post he held for the two-term limit until this year.
Liccardo: There are things we know that gun owners can do to protect children, to protect their own families and their communities. And we know that insurance is much more effective at those kind of preventative measures than the government is.
Sharyl: Because the insurance will require certain things in order to cover?
Liccardo: We want insurance companies to get in this game, encourage gun owners to get gun safety locks, get gun safes, to take gun safety courses, the trigger locks and the chamber load indicators. So we know that premiums can have that financial nudge that gun owners might need.
San Jose’s strategy hasn’t been tested before. But the measures, like keeping proof of compliance papers with the gun, aren’t unusual, according to Liccardo.
Liccardo: All of us drive every day, and we're required to keep proof of insurance and registration with the car. This is not, "You have to keep proof of identification with you at all times." This is, "Keep it with the gun." That is the instrument that can cause the harm. Just demonstrate that you've paid the fee and you have any insurance.
Sharyl: I mean, the difference being, I don't think we have a constitutional right to have a driver's license and have a car. People argue we do have one to bear arms.
Liccardo: So we feel confident that there's plenty of precedent for this.
For example, he says, 19th century laws required some people to post surety bonds, a form of insurance, to carry weapons in public.
The heated debate over gun rights and gun control intensified after one of the most important Supreme Court rulings on the Second Amendment right to bear arms. Last summer, the court struck down a 100-year-old New York State law. It had required people who wanted to carry a concealed gun to first convince the government they had a good reason. Tossing out the law forced numerous other cities and states to back off on similar gun restrictions, including Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Washington, D.C., and California.
At the same time, San Jose became one of many local governments seeking new gun restrictions that stand up to court challenges. Its law was two years in the making and designed to be bulletproof to constitutional challenges.
But there are plenty of reasons the law is a misfire, according to Tim Bittle of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association watchdog group.
Tim Bittle: The ordinance requires you to keep proof of insurance and proof of payment of the fee with the gun at all times and to produce that proof anytime a peace officer requests it. There's no other details than that. So I assume a peace officer could knock on the door of your home and ask you for proof that you carry the insurance and that you've paid the fee. And then the ordinance says if you don't produce proof to a peace officer when requested, you're subject to a fine and confiscation of your firearm.
His group is also challenging the $25 fee.
Sharyl: There are fees involving guns that already exist. Why would it be wrong to impose a fee now?
Bittle: Well, it's not necessarily wrong to impose a fee. So we believe it's a tax, which under California law would need voter approval that it never got. Also that it's a violation of your First Amendment rights to free speech and association, because the fee has to get paid to a private nonprofit organization that the city designates. And so they're forcing gun owners to associate with this organization and to support it financially, whether or not the gun owner approves of the activities or the messaging of the private nonprofit.
The fee is on hold while the courts decide that issue. But another problem, he says, is that San Jose’s law targets gun owners who have done nothing wrong.
Bittle: Now obviously, criminals are not going to be participating in this program. They're not going to be obtaining insurance, which is the other half of the ordinance. You have to maintain gun harm insurance. And they're not going to be paying the fee or registering their guns or anything like that.
Sharyl: What about that argument? "You’re making the law-abiding good people basically subsidize and kind of pick up for the criminals"?
Liccardo: Well, part of this is, one way to rapidly identify who the criminals are is, when you're asked if you have insurance or have you paid a fee, if the answer is "no," that puts you on a radar. It means someone's got to pay a fine. And obviously, that enables the police department to ask additional questions. So that is helpful.
Sharyl: Have other cities or states talked with you or San Jose about this and described some interest in following the same path?
Liccardo: Yeah. A lot of mayors reached out to me, because I think mayors are uniquely frustrated by violence in their communities.
Frustrated also by lack of action in Congress when it comes to laws that gun control advocates would like to see enacted nationally. Opponents arguing that new laws aren’t the answer to America’s crime and violence problems. For this constitutional issue that divides America and inspires perennial debate, if San Jose’s law holds, it’s bound to trigger support from many and continued opposition from others reluctant to promise compliance.
Sharyl: I think they're talking about $25 a year, and the money would go to a non-profit that would help gun violence, prevent gun violence, and help victims, and that type of thing.
Doan Thoi / Gun user: Hmm. I mean, as long as it actually did that, then I would be all for that.
Ken Brennan / Gun user: I think it's ridiculous. I think it won't do anything to solve the issues it sounds he has with crime.
Sharyl: You'll do it if you have to, I suppose, when the time comes, maybe? Maybe not?
Brennan: I don't know. I don't know. I don't, I don't feel—
Sharyl: Could there be a civil disobedience-type thing going on in the city?
Brennan: Absolutely. Absolutely. I think gun owners, if they see common sense laws that will actually make a difference, they will support them. But not when the laws are — there's no logic behind it. It’s just nonsense. It’s just political nonsense.
Sharyl (on-camera): A court hearing on San Jose’s law is scheduled for June 15th.