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Responding to Gun Violence, California Mayor Wants Gun Owners to Have Liability Insurance

The insurance, required of all gun owners except law enforcement officers, would cover the costs of harm caused by accidental gunshots, or by intentional shootings by nonowners who borrow or steal the gun.

By Bob Egelko

San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, whose city lost two children to gunfire at the Gilroy Garlic Festival, proposed Monday to make San Jose the nation's first community to require gun owners to carry liability insurance.

"We will not halt gun violence in San Jose, but we will stop paying for it," Liccardo said in an interview after announcing his proposal, which would require approval from the City Council.

The insurance, required of all gun owners except law enforcement officers, would cover the costs of harm caused by accidental gunshots, or by intentional shootings by nonowners who borrow or steal the gun. It would not cover injuries or deaths caused deliberately by the gun owner.

For those who could not obtain or afford insurance, Liccardo would require contributions to a public fund to pay the city's costs of gun violence -- ambulance service, medical treatment and post-treatment therapy funded by the government, police and prosecution costs, and state expenses for witnesses, counseling and funerals.

Liccardo said he anticipates "legal and political challenges" to his plan, and does not expect an "enthusiastic" response from the insurance industry, based on a recent conversation with industry representatives. An industry executive told The Chronicle that much of the coverage the mayor wants is already provided in standard homeowners' policies that include liability insurance.

But Liccardo said he has also spoken with other mayors, who expressed interest in the proposal.

After Gilroy and other recent mass shootings, Liccardo said, "we don't have the luxury of waiting for Congress to act while reciting thoughts and prayers."

A Bay Area congressman agreed.

"If you need to have insurance to drive an automobile and follow safety guidelines, then why shouldn't you need insurance to operate and keep a gun safely?" Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Fremont, said in a Twitter post endorsing Liccardo's proposal.

Along similar lines, Assemblyman David Chiu, D-San Francisco, said in a statement that cities and states must take the lead, because President Trump and his Republican allies "have abdicated their responsibility to address our country's gun violence crisis."

Trump has recently suggested support for increased background checks of gun purchasers, but also extolled his "great relationship" with the National Rifle Association. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has spurned Democratic pleas to call senators back from their August recess to take up House-approved legislation on background checks.

The California Rifle and Pistol Association, the NRA's California affiliate, did not respond to a request for comment on Liccardo's proposal. A law professor who has studied gun issues said a city's authority to require gun owners to have insurance was an "open question."

"If the requirement is so burdensome to discourage exercise of a fundamental right, courts will likely be skeptical," said Adam Winkler of UCLA School of Law. But "a reasonable insurance requirement would not necessarily be unconstitutional" even if it affects one's legal rights, he said, noting that organizers of political marches have been required to carry insurance.

Jeff Cretan, spokesman for San Francisco Mayor London Breed, said Breed "supports taking innovative steps" against gun violence and is "looking forward to learning more about what Mayor Liccardo is proposing."

The July 28 assault at the annual garlic festival wounded 13 people and killed three: 6-year-old Stephen Romero and 13-year-old Keyla Salazar, both of San Jose, and Trevor Irby, 25, of Santa Cruz. The gunman, 19-year-old Santino Legan, a Gilroy native who had moved to Nevada and purchased his assault weapon there, took his own life.

A week later, mass shootings killed 22 people in El Paso, Texas, and nine in Dayton, Ohio.

California already has some of the nation's strongest gun-control laws, but has had little success in keeping out prohibited firearms from other states, like Legan's AK47-style semiautomatic rifle, which is illegal to buy or own in California.

Liccardo noted that state lawmakers are working on further measures, including a $25 tax on sales of all new guns, proposed in AB18 by Assemblyman Marc Levine, D-San Rafael. The bill stalled in an Assembly committee in May, but Levine is seeking to revive it after the recent shootings.

In the absence of a statewide tax, Liccardo said, he will propose a city tax on guns and ammunition to fund gun-safety classes, gun-violence-prevention programs and assistance for survivors of shootings.

Other proposals would authorize parents of youths under 18 to consent to police searches of their children or the children's belongings for guns, and would offer cash rewards for information about someone who possesses illegally obtained weapons.

Regarding the insurance proposal, Liccardo said state-mandated auto insurance encourages and rewards safe driving, and tobacco taxes discourage risky behavior while protecting nonsmokers from the public health costs of smoking.

"These successful public health models inspire a similar 'harm reduction' approach for firearms," Liccardo said in a statement.

The need for widespread expansion of coverage was questioned, however, by Rex Frazier, president of the Personal Insurance Federation of California, which represents major auto and home insurance companies. He said he and other representatives had spoken to Liccardo about the issue late last year.

State law prohibits insurance coverage for one's own intentional or criminal acts, Frazier said, and homeowners' policies typically include liability coverage. So if a homeowner is sued for harm accidentally caused by something in the home, including a gun, the owner's current policy would probably cover it already, he said. Or if the problem was a defect in the gun, the manufacturer, not the owner, would be responsible, he said.

Not all renters carry insurance, but their policies can also include the same liability coverage, Frazier said.

"We would be very cautious about people being forced to buy coverage they already have," he said.

(c)2019 the San Francisco Chronicle

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