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‘The Trace’ (Yes, ‘The Trace’) Reveals the Lie Behind San Jose’s New Gun Owner Liability Insurance Law


San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo
San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia,File)

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[San Jose Mayor Sam] Liccardo, the mayor, has said that safe gun behavior will determine insurance rates and lead to discounts. He told Slate last month: “When you notify the insurance company, the insurance company can start to ask questions like, ‘Do you have a gun safe? Do you have a trigger lock? Have you taken gun safety classes?’ And those kinds of actions can help to reduce the premium.”

But experts we spoke with said insurance companies won’t be asking these questions, and gun owner behavior probably won’t influence rates, because the ordinance only requires policies that cover accidental shootings, which are rare in San Jose. “It’s totally oversold,” said George Mocsary, a law professor at the University of Wyoming. “I think it’s an idea that makes sense on the surface. But when you dig into it a little bit, it essentially falls apart.”

A spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office, Rachel Davis, told us that staffers reached out to “over a dozen” insurance companies and that all of them asked about risk factors. These included whether children lived in the home, whether someone was on medication for depression, whether there is a gun safe, how many guns were in the house, and if the gun owner had safety training. But Davis didn’t say how these factors would affect premiums.

“While there’s a clause in most policies that covers negligent gun harm, it’s up to the gun owner to disclose more information that could affect their rates,” Davis said in an emailed response to our questions. “It’s also up to each of the insurance companies to define their policy requirements and up to residents to find the insurance policy that will work for them.” Davis insists that when gun owners file a claim, they will be asked about risk factors like gun storage, and the answers to those questions will determine whether a shooting is covered.

We reached out to several major insurance providers for more details about how the policies will work, but only three got back to us. Farmers and State Farm, referred us to [Janet] Ruiz of the Insurance Information Institute, while AAA said in a statement: “AAA supports the safety and security of our communities, which is why we offer insurance covering a broad scope of losses. We are reviewing the newly passed ordinance to determine whether it affects our products.”

According to the Pacific Institute study, San Jose has an average of two unintentional shooting deaths per year. The nonprofit Gun Violence Archive, meanwhile, has recorded just three unintentional shootings in San Jose since 2015, resulting in two deaths and two injuries. Those figures may be an undercount — GVA bases its tallies on news and police reports, which can be incomplete — but even so, none of those shootings would have been covered by San Jose’s gun owners insurance because they all resulted in criminal charges.

According to Mocsary, the rarity of unintentional shootings make the odds of ever paying out on a claim so low that “the insurance companies just don’t care.” “They’ve already had the opportunity to do the actuarial math on this, and they found that it makes no difference,” he added. If risky gun behaviors affected their bottom line, insurers would already be asking about them. “And they don’t,” he said.

That contradicts a major selling point of the ordinance: the claim that risk-adjusted premiums will encourage gun owners to take safety courses and invest in gun safes, trigger locks, or chamber-load indicators.

— Jennifer Mascia in Will Requiring Gun Owners to Buy Insurance Improve Firearm Safety?

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