Washington outdoes itself on a daily basis with its paralysis and dysfunction. That’s why local governments would be wise to follow the maxim: “If you want something done, do it yourself.”
In the nearly 10 years since 20 young children and six adults were massacred at Sandy Hook Elementary School, mass shootings remain such a staple of American life—from Parkland to El Paso to the Tree of Life synagogue—that the names are shorthand for a scourge we’ve seen too often to generate lasting mass outrage.
Meanwhile, after each bloody mess, Republicans send their thoughts and prayers and then do everything they can to ensure nothing changes.
But local governments could provide the national blueprint for meaningful gun reform. San Jose is showing the way.
In July 2019, the bucolic Gilroy Garlic Festival—about 16 miles from San Jose—was invaded by a gunman who killed three people, two of them children, and seriously wounded 13 others. Almost two years later in May 2021, a disgruntled worker went on a rampage in a San Jose railyard and killed nine of his fellow employees and himself.
Again, Congress wasn’t going to do much besides offer thoughts and prayers, so San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo took matters into its own hands.
Liccardo set about to treat guns the way we do cars.
An automobile can be deadly, but it’s not the reason it’s built. And yet, because cars can pose a danger to others, they are highly regulated as a matter of public safety, and without much fuss.
Car owners are required to pay a substantial tax at the point of purchase. They must also register their vehicles annually and carry insurance for any damage to life and property.
Liccardo, displaying common sense, talked up the parallels between the two products and the need to do whatever could be done to make the city safer. He pre-butted the constitutional argument to come: “While the Second Amendment protects the right to bear arms, it does not require taxpayers to subsidize it.”
It worked. In January, San Jose’s city council voted 10-1 in favor of imposing on gun owners some of the same responsibilities familiar to anyone with a car. By August, anyone with a gun in San Jose will have to buy liability insurance that specifically covers harm and other losses from the use of a firearm, whether said harm was intentional or accidental. Gun owners will also be required to pay a sliding annual registration fee—dependent on whether an owner buys a locked safe, trigger locks, and enrolls in safety classes.
This was possible, in part, because mayors are more likely to be less partisan than the average member of Congress, and much more practical and more accountable to the voters they serve.
The National Rifle Association still holds outsized influence among members of Congress and federal government agencies. The proliferation of millions of assault-style rifles can be directly traced to Congress’s refusal to renew the 1994 assault weapon ban 10 years after it was signed into law by President Bill Clinton. You can thank the NRA for that, too.
Members of Congress can essentially hide from their constituents, holed up in their bubbles of privilege in Washington. Mayors don’t have that luxury.
But without real reform, all local leaders can most often do is apply bandages on a gaping wound. Metal detectors at every event, security guards at every building, and automatic locks on classroom doors to harden vulnerable schools for the next inevitable attack are all stopgaps.
Liccardo has shown that more can be done, something meaningful rather than cosmetic. If other mayors across America take notice, they can implement the kind of sensible gun reform that Congress is too cowed by the NRA to even consider.
San Jose—home to a world famous summer fair devoted to a delectable spice, and the inspiration for a Top 10 hit song by Dionne Warwick—also has a mayor who saw something that needed to be done, and did it himself.
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