Recent mass shootings have spurred renewed calls from President Biden for a national assault weapons ban. Sensibly so. But for even the most ardent gun control advocates, it’s hard not to ask whether, in a nation with an estimated 400 million firearms, restrictions on new gun purchases accomplish too little without something more.
Amid the rising tide of firearms, reducing gun deaths and injuries requires new solutions. In San Jose, Calif., where I am mayor, we’ve embarked on two approaches untried in any other city or state: We’re imposing an annual fee on gun-owning residents and investing the revenues in violence prevention efforts. And on Jan. 1, the city will begin requiring gun owners to carry liability insurance to compensate victims harmed by the negligent or reckless use of a firearm.
These initiatives reflect the recognition that we can’t make 400 million guns go away, but we can make gun ownership safer. The recent surge in pandemic-era gun sales, the influx of “ghost guns” — privately made and untraceable — and the Supreme Court’s decision in June striking down a New York law that had placed strict limits on carrying a gun outside the home have exacerbated the challenges to keep guns out of dangerous hands.
We can make some of those hands less dangerous, though. In San Jose, the nation’s 10th-largest city, more than 200 people are killed or injured by gunfire every year. Not all of that harm results from the actions of criminals. Over a recent six-year period, 42 percent of San Jose’s gun deaths and injuries resulted from unintentional shootings or shootings whose circumstances were unknown, while suicide attempts accounted for another 15 percent. Suicide exacts an even more lethal toll nationally, accounting for 54 percent of all gun fatalities. So much of that suffering is preventable.
Many studies have shown that the mere presence of a gun in a home makes a host of perilous circumstances much more lethal. A domestic violence victim faces five times the risk of dying if the abuser has access to a gun, for example, while access to a firearm in the home increases the odds of suicide more than threefold. Interventions such as mental health counseling, suicide and domestic violence prevention, and gun safety classes can prevent some of those harms. We should focus those services where we can have the greatest impact in reducing gun-related harm: on those living in households with guns.
This is why, beginning next year, San Jose will require gun owners to pay an annual fee — the amount is still to be determined — which a nonprofit foundation will invest in evidence-based violence prevention programs directed at gun-owning families. This policy won’t magically halt mass shootings or suicides, but it will provide a better chance to get help to troubled adults and teenagers before they pick up their guns.
Our gun insurance mandate will address an often overlooked aspect of gun harm: unintentional shootings, which kill nearly 500 Americans annually and send about 26,000 others to emergency rooms, many of them children. Insurance companies can use premiums to encourage safer behavior by providing gun-owning policyholders with financial incentives to take gun-safety classes, store their firearms in a gun safe and install a chamber-load indicator or trigger lock. These steps could save many lives in a nation where 4.6 million children live in a home where a gun is kept loaded and unlocked.
Most gun-owning residents can comply with the insurance mandate with little or no additional cost under standard homeowners’ and renters’ policies. As more jurisdictions adopt an insurance requirement — legislators in New Jersey and California have recently proposed them — we expect that the insurance industry will become increasingly invested in reducing gun-related harm. Premiums will reflect the risks of gun ownership and will adjust accordingly, in the same way that auto insurers offer “good driver” discounts or how they incentivized the installation of anti-lock brakes and airbags in the past.
Of course, in the realm of gun regulation, no good deed goes unlitigated. Three groups sued San Jose after the ordinance imposing the fee and insurance requirement passed. A Federal District Court declined their pleas for an injunction to stop the ordinance from taking effect, finding no unconstitutional burden on Second Amendment rights where “there are no means by which a San Jose gun owner may be deprived of his or her firearm.”
That’s the point. Until Congress and the courts arrive at a politically and constitutionally viable approach to sensibly restricting gun ownership, we must make gun ownership safer. There is no inevitability to gun-related death, injury and suffering — unless, through our inaction, we allow there to be so.
Sam Liccardo, a Democrat, has been the mayor of San Jose since 2015. He is a former federal and local prosecutor.
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