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San Jose mayor: gun liability insurance law will alleviate taxpayers, promote safety

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Earlier this week, San Jose City Council approved a measure taking a new direction in this country's long-running effort to deal with gun violence. It's liability insurance. The council passed a law that would require gun owners to get a policy similar to what is now required of car owners, except this would cover things like accidental shootings that may lead to death, injuries or property damage. As you might expect, there's already pushback. A group called the National Association for Gun Rights, which describes itself as a no-compromise network of activists, announced it was filing a federal lawsuit challenging the requirement. The law is part of a larger strategy around gun violence announced by San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo last spring after a shooting at a rail yard left nine people dead. We wanted to know more about the city's plans, so we called Mayor Liccardo, and he's with us now. Mr. Mayor, welcome. Thank you for joining us.

SAM LICCARDO: Great to be with you, Michel.

M MARTIN: So first of all, I think most people are familiar with liability insurance. We usually see it with auto insurance or home insurance, maybe even professional malpractice insurance. So maybe this has been considered before in the context of gun violence. So how did this idea come up, and how would it work?

LICCARDO: Well, it's not a new idea. It's been proposed in many state legislatures as well as in Congress. The bill just has never moved forward, and, as we know, there's a very strong gun lobby that has prevented it. The good news is liability insurance is widely available for most homeowners and renters. We called more than 15 insurance companies, and they all offered it, typically at a very small additional cost, in many cases for free as part of the primary insurance.

M MARTIN: So the city also voted to require gun owners to pay a $25 administration fee that would be distributed to groups - local groups for firearms safety, education, training, suicide prevention, domestic violence, mental health services. Again, so what gave you the idea for that? And what will this look like in practice?

LICCARDO: What it'll look like is that every gun owner in the city will be mailed notification that they have an obligation to pay a fee, and they'll be informed about services that are available to them and to their families for mental health counseling, for suicide prevention, domestic violence prevention, a whole host of services, including gun safety classes. And what we know is that occupants of gun-owning households are far more likely to be victimized by the very gun in their home. So we're essentially providing services focused on those families that are most at risk - indeed, the very families that own the guns and their loved ones. What we know is that, certainly, we'll be challenged on this. But at the same time, look, the Second Amendment strictly protects everyone's right to own and possess a gun, but it doesn't require taxpayers to subsidize that right. And right now taxpayers, for example, in the state of California, are spending more than $1.4 billion every year in public response to gun violence and gun harm. And we believe we can better, more equitably distribute that cost and reduce the harm from guns.

M MARTIN: So as we mentioned at the top and as you alluded to, the ordinance has strong support in the council, but it's already been challenged in federal court or it soon will be. I understand that the hearing became contentious. The usual criticism applies - that it doesn't do anything to deter people who unlawfully acquire weapons, that it punishes lawful gun owners and that it's basically an unconstitutional infringement upon the right to carry a weapon. And how do you respond to that?

LICCARDO: Well, there have been taxes and fees on guns and ammunition in this country since 1919. So the basic concept is not terribly new, and, certainly, there are fees that we're obligated to pay to exercise all kinds of constitutional rights. For example, to file a civil claim in court under the Seventh Amendment, we pay a filing fee. Or to organize a political advocacy group under the First Amendment, we would pay fees, for example, to the IRS. So this is nothing terribly new. The reality is this - we're not trying to punish any gun owners. We know that gun owners and their families and their significant others are the ones most at risk for gun harm, and these fees that we're using will be used to specifically invest in those families, to provide them the services. And frankly, this is a critical need in this country. We have 4.6 million children who live in a home where a gun is kept loaded and unlocked. That is why we have 27,000 emergency room admissions for accidental shootings every year in this country. There's a lot we can do to make gun ownership safer.

M MARTIN: So you know, I don't want to kind of gloss past something that happened in your city last May where a transit worker showed up at a rail yard and, according to the authorities, he killed nine people and then killed himself. Did that terrible event change the way you thought about or the way you decided to approach gun violence?

LICCARDO: Well, we were actually working on this before that horrific tragedy, but it gave us a terrible jolt to be more proactive. And I think what is often lost in the headlines - obviously a horrific tragedy like that is always on a headline - but over the next 13 days, we had eight more people in my city who were victimized again by gunfire. And in addition, there was a witness, another VTA employee who witnessed that horrible tragedy who then turned the gun on himself in subsequent weeks. Those are the very preventable harms, it seems to me, and those are the daily tragedies that are devastating families every day in our country. And, certainly, the mass shootings I know will get everyone's attention, and people will ask, how is insurance going to stop a mass shooting? Look, this is about the much larger ocean of harm out there. It's not simply about the coastline and what we see on the headlines.

M MARTIN: As we said, you know, the hearing, I understand, was contentious, and I think it wouldn't surprise anybody what the kind of the lines that were drawn were. But have you heard anything in the course of this that surprised you? Have you had any feedback from citizens that surprised you or that particularly stuck with you?

LICCARDO: You know, all too often, I would have conversations with folks who were perhaps much more conservative than me. And we'd be talking about this, and I'd say, hey, you know what? This isn't actually governmental regulation. This is private sector regulation. This is insurance companies. Insurance companies have been regulating safety of automobiles for five decades, and as a result, we all have seen per mile deaths drop dramatically over the last five decades because we have air bags and anti-lock brakes and so forth that insurance companies incentivize drivers to go buy. And when they start to hear more, we are seeing that folks understand it. They get it. This is not about Big Brother. This is not about us taking anyone's gun away. This is about using creative alternative ways, including private sector and nonprofit sector, getting them involved and helping us to solve a problem in the same way that we solve other public health problems and focusing on reducing the harm, not in engaging in the divisive battles.

M MARTIN: That was the mayor of San Jose, Sam Liccardo. Mr. Mayor, thank you so much for talking with us.

LICCARDO: Pleasure to be with you, Michel.

(SOUNDBITE OF IDEALISM'S "CONTROLLA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.