Citing the uncertain and ever-shifting legal landscape, the City Council stopped short of expanding the ban to places like parks, playgrounds and libraries, as some gun-control advocates had urged. Council members also indicated that they plan to evaluate additional restrictions in the future, once courts clarify what types of bans can actually pass legal muster.
Palo Alto's new law is a response to a 2022 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in which the court's conservative majority struck down the state of New York's law that required individuals to show "proper cause" before they could obtain a permit to carry a firearm outside their homes. The court's decision in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen also effectively struck down California's "good cause" requirement to get a license to carry a concealed firearm. State Attorney General Rob Bonta instructed all California law enforcement agencies that the good cause requirement can no longer be enforced.
To deal with the court decision, Palo Alto adopted an ordinance on Monday that designates government buildings, schools and polling places as "sensitive places" where carrying firearms would be prohibited. The Supreme Court had carved out exceptions for these places, citing legal precedent.
Council members broadly agreed that the Supreme Court ruling represents a step backward for gun-control efforts. The city's ordinance cites a 2022 report by the Santa Clara County Department of Public Health that showed that the age-adjusted firearm death rate in the county was 4.8 people per 100,000 in 2020, the highest rate in the past decade, although the rates in 2011 and 2015 were 4.7 people per 100,000. The deaths include firearms-related suicide.
The report also stated that California experienced 369 mass shootings (in which four or more people are killed or injured) between 2014 and January 2023, including the 2021 shooting at a VTA railyard in San Jose in which an employee fatally shot nine men before killing himself.
For some council members, the subject hit particularly close to home. Council member Vicki Veenker recalled sitting in traffic in March 2018 when she learned that Palo Alto High School was on lockdown after someone threatened to shoot up the school. Veenker, whose daughter was a student at Paly at that time, described the horror that the entire family was feeling before police completed the investigation and determined that the threat was a hoax.
"We all told each other 'Love You' and waited for a nerve-wrecking hour. It felt like forever," Veenker said during Monday's discussion. "And then we learned it was a hoax. I've never felt such relief. All that and not one shot was fired."
Council member Greg Tanaka, who grew up in southern California, had his own brush with gun violence when Richard Ramirez, a sex offender and serial killer known as "Night Stalker," was terrorizing his neighborhood in 1984 and 1985. Tanaka said Ramirez broke into a house a few doors away from his family's and shot both the husband and the wife.
Tanaka said his father had a storage bench where he and his sister were instructed to hide if someone broke into their house. The family also screwed the windows shut and bought a handgun.
"This is one of the reasons I moved to Palo Alto," Tanaka said. "I didn't want to be in a place like that, and I didn't want my kids to grow up in a place like that."
While Tanaka joined his colleagues in supporting the new ban, he said he was concerned that it probably won't do much good when it comes to reducing gun violence because individuals who are interested in committing gun violence probably won't be concerned about following the local ordinance.
"My worry about this is I think the bad guys really don't care that there's a concealed carry law. The good guys, the law-abiding citizens, will, of course, obey the laws, but I don't think the bad guys will really do that," he said.
Some suggested that the ban doesn't go far enough. The local chapter of League of Women Voters urged the council to follow the example of Sunnyvale and extend its firearm ban to places such as playgrounds, places of worship and public demonstrations and rallies. A proposed state bill, Senate Bill 2, aims to do just that, though it is expected to face legal challenges if it gets signed into law.
"These additional 'sensitive places' are where people congregate or participate in democracy; they are places where emotions and tensions can flare," former Mayor Liz Kniss, president of League of Women Voters of Palo Alto, wrote to the council. "Ideally, these 'sensitive places' should be included in the emergency ordinance, effective immediately."
It's not clear, however, whether an expanded ban would withstand court scrutiny. In New York, the state's attempt to pass a broader definition of "sensitive places" was challenged and partially overturned by a federal court, which allowed the ban to apply to government buildings, polling places and schools but not to libraries, parks, houses of worship or other areas that were initially included in the law.
City Attorney Molly Stump suggested that expanding the list of sensitive places further would entail "substantial legal risks."
"What we have before you is what we're confident will be upheld," Stump told the council.
The council also agreed that the city attorney should monitor the evolution of case law and make recommendations at a future date about additional places where firearms could be prohibited. The council also supported having the city officially endorse Senate Bill 2 and work with state and federal officials to pursue further prohibitions on firearms.
Council member Pat Burt was among those who said they were puzzled by the logic of the Supreme Court ruling and its strict limits on where firearms can be prohibited. He cited a business trip he took to Austin, Texas about 20 years ago, where he and a local resident went to a large barbecue restaurant that had a sign informing visitors that they had to leave their firearms at the door.
"Even in Texas, at a big barbecue, you've got to leave your firearms at the door," Burt said. "It made me even reflect that Wild West saloons often required you to leave your firearms at the door. And yet today that's in doubt."