In a 3-2 vote, the board approved a proposal by Supervisors Nathan Fletcher and Terra Lawson-Remer, and supported by Supervisor Nora Vargas, directing the county counsel to pursue liability claims against firearms businesses for violence associated with the guns they sell. Supervisors Jim Desmond and Joel Anderson, the two Republicans on the board, voted against the measure.
The board also unanimously voted in favor of Desmond’s proposals to use county funding to improve school security for smaller districts without the resources to afford it, and to support a program called “Camp LEAD” that addresses social issues and introduces high school students to law enforcement officers.
A series of mass shootings last month, including a school attack in Uvalde, Texas, that left 21 people including 19 children dead, and a shooting at a supermarket in Buffalo, N.Y., that killed 10 people, have revived debate over gun control. The measures introduced Tuesday in San Diego County fall along national partisan lines, with Democrats pressing for stricter gun control measures while Republicans call for school hardening and mental health treatment.
“As our nation experiences collective grief and loss from one of the deadliest racially-motivated gun massacres in recent American history and the deadliest school shooting in a decade, we are proposing that the Board of Supervisors authorize County legal counsel to undertake proactive legal actions that hold firearm manufacturers accountable,” the liability measure proposed by Fletcher and Lawson-Remer stated.
The measure directs staff to consider liability claims against firearm businesses, similar to lawsuits filed against pharmaceutical companies that produced and marketed addictive opioids. The board letter requested county counsel to pursue claims against gun manufacturers, but in the board meeting Fletcher amended that to also include firearm distributors, marketers or sellers.
The board letter didn’t specify what kind of violations it would target, but cited a lawsuit by the city of Los Angeles against a Nevada-based seller of “ghost gun” kits “that enable buyers to build fully functional guns at home without complying with background checks or gun serialization requirements.” Ghost guns refer to weapons assembled from parts without serial numbers, which enable users to make home-made guns without identification markings. In January, the board outlawed the sale or distribution of unmarked “ghost gun” parts.
Fletcher said the lawsuits would enable the county to seek damages for violations of state gun safety laws.
“In the state of California individuals still have the right to buy and own firearms,” Fletcher said. “We do it in a safe, regulated and legal manner, but it is still a constitutionally protected right in California.”
Anderson and Desmond said they agreed with plans to collect information about weapons seized by law enforcement in San Diego County, but objected to the recommendation to sue gun businesses over misuse of their products.
“I agree with the spirit that we have to stop the tide of gun violence in our communities,” Desmond said. “The second recommendation, I don’t think it’s going to address the issue. We need enforcement, we need much more heavy enforcement of the laws we have. I’m in favor of harsher penalties for illegal use of guns.”
One speaker who identified herself as a member of the organization San Diegans for Gun Violence Prevention said the county could target legal challenges against gun stores that don’t follow background check laws or properly lock up firearms to prevent theft.
“This takes an important stance to address the supply side issues with the gun industry,” she said.
Other speakers argued that the measure would infringe on constitutional rights to own or sell guns, and said gun rights advocates should be included in the discussion.
Michael Schwartz, executive director of the San Diego County Gun Owners PAC, derided the litigation plan as a “publicity stunt” in a statement Tuesday.
“The idea that the County will sue manufacturers because someone criminally misused their product is nothing short of ludicrous,” Schwartz wrote. “Let’s be honest about this effort. This will never pass in the courts and it’s little more than a publicity opportunity for extremists Fletcher and Lawson-Remer.”
In separate measures, the board unanimously passed measures introduced by Desmond to use county funding for a high school program called Camp LEAD, and to make campuses more secure.
“Camp LEAD brings together students who are considered high-risk, including academic and discipline issues with students who have been active and involved in campus programs,” the board letter stated. “Together, along with adult mentors and counselors, they embark on a journey that increases empathy, self-awareness, school attendance and academic performance.”
The program includes discussions about ethnicity, culture, religion, race, physical ability, socioeconomics, gender, age, and lifestyle and helps students navigate challenging social issues that have been heightened by isolation during the pandemic, the board letter stated. It includes law enforcement officers who participate in street clothes for the first two days and then appear in uniform on the final day “so that the students can make the connection that law enforcement officials care about them and their communities.”
The program has been restricted during the COVID-19 pandemic, but Desmond said he provided a $50,000 small business grant through his office to expand it. The board action Tuesday directed county staff to seek permanent funding and camp locations for the program, to reduce costs and ensure its continued operation.
In another board item, Desmond also recommended that the county assist school districts with programs and infrastructure to make campuses more secure. He suggested the county add resources for behavioral health programs at school sites, help with improvements such as security fencing and provide grant-writing assistance for districts that don’t have personnel to apply for state or federal school safety funding.
The measure directed county staff to work with schools to determine their needs and report back to the board of supervisors with proposed plans to assist them.