Responding to a recent surge in gun sales around Santa Clara County, Palo Alto on Tuesday adopted an emergency law that would make it more difficult for firearms dealers to set up shop within the city.
The City Council unanimously approved a law that would require any firearms dealer to obtain a conditional-use permit before they could open a gun store in the city. Prior to the law's adoption, the city's zoning rules treated firearms shops like other retail operations, which allowed them in properties zone for retail.
Even before the change, city law required gun dealers to obtain firearm permits from the Palo Alto Police Department before they could operate within the city. To qualify for a permit, dealerships, among other requirements, are prohibited within 250 feet of zoning districts where housing is a principal use, near schools and day care centers, and near massage parlors and adult entertainment establishments. According to city planning staff, if a firearms dealer meets these criteria, the city is required to issue a permit.
Palo Alto currently doesn't have any gun shops, but locations where a firearms dealership could be established are currently limited to Stanford Research Park; the commercial area on Embarcadero Road east of U.S. Highway 101; and the industrial and commercial area in south Palo Alto around San Antonio and Charleston roads. Because retail is a conditional use based on the zoning in these areas, a firearms dealership would have to obtain a conditional-use permit.
City staff warned, however, that other Palo Alto locations could become available for firearms shops if, for example, a massage parlor shuts down and the 250-foot prohibition no longer applies to a nearby property. Under prior rules, a firearms shop could be granted permission to open in these areas. Under the new rules, it would face the additional hurdle of obtaining a conditional-use permit.
In making the case for the new restrictions, Palo Alto's ordinance points to the high number of U.S. residents who die from gunshot wounds each year.
Annually, more than 23,000 residents die by firearm suicide (out of nearly 46,000 total suicides), 14,000 die by firearm homicide and nearly 500 die from unintentional firearm injuries. The ordinance notes that in California, nearly 4,000 children and teenagers were killed or injured with firearms between 2005 and 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The ordinance also notes that between 2002 and 2015, more than 350,000 firearms were sold in Santa Clara County. And in 2020, the number of firearm sales across the U.S. exceeded the previous year by nearly 64%, according to the city.
"Access to firearms has a significant impact on public peace, health and safety," the ordinance states, citing a 2014 review in the Annals of Internal Medicine that concluded that access to firearms within the home doubles the risk that family members will become a victim of homicide and triples the risk of suicide.
At the same time, the ordinance acknowledges, "Firearm retailers provide a valuable service to individuals who wish to legally purchase and possess firearms."
Other neighboring jurisdictions also have recently implemented additional restrictions on firearms sales. Last year, San Mateo County adopted a law that requires gun shops to obtain licenses, which involves an investigation of the applicant by the county manager's office with the assistance of the county sheriff. The ordinance, which applies only to unincorporated areas of San Mateo County, also establishes requirements that firearm shops be secure facilities with locked fireproof safes or vaults for the storage of firearms. It also requires them to ensure that ammunition is not accessible to the public when the shops are open.
Santa Clara County also requires a license for firearms dealers, which must be submitted for review by the sheriff and the planning director. The county has discretion to deny an application if the applicant is "not of good moral character," according to the ordinance.
Palo Alto recently received an inquiry about permissible locations for firearms dealerships, according to a report from planning staff. That prompted staff to bring the proposed change to the council for approval.
Planning Director Jonathan Lait said on Tuesday that with the emergency ordinance in place, city staff will present the change to the Planning and Transportation Commission before returning to the council for passage of a permanent ordinance.
"From a regulatory standpoint, it's a relatively modest adjustment to the city's existing standard and it aligns Palo Alto with many neighboring jurisdictions that also already require a conditional-use permit for firearms (retailers)," Lait told the council.
The council swiftly approved the proposed change, with Vice Mayor Lydia Kou and council member Alison Cormack both thanking planning staff for being proactive on the issue of firearm sales.
"I'm confident this is what the community would want us to do," Cormack said just before the vote.