Do you own guns and live in Morro Bay? Then you need to make sure your guns are locked away where only you can get at them, or the City might write you a citation that carries jail time.
That’s unconstitutional, you might argue but a new law passed by the City Council and going into effect Oct. 28, makes it a misdemeanor to have guns — rifles and handguns — inside your home that are not secured against theft or someone else getting access to them in an attempt to reduce “the risk of firearm injury and death.”
And the City Attorney assures that it this not a violation of the Second Amendment Right to keep and bear arms.
“The United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit,” City Attorney Chris Neumeyer’s staff report said, “held in 2014 that a San Francisco firearm safe storage ordinance was consistent with the federal Second Amendment. (Jackson v. City & Cty. Of San Francisco (2014) 746 F.3d 953.)
“The proposed ordinance to add a firearm safe storage law to the Morro Bay Municipal Code is modeled on the San Francisco law determined to be constitutional.”
The City’s new ordinance (No. 644, adds Chapter 9.36 [Safe Storage of Firearms] to Title 9 (Health and Safety) of the Morro Bay Municipal Code, to Require Safe Storage of Firearms Located in a Residence) has just three general provisions:
No person shall keep a firearm within a residence unless the firearm is:
Stored in a locked container or disabled with a trigger lock;
Carried on the person of the owner, or other lawfully authorized user of the firearm; and,
Within close enough proximity and control that the owner, or other lawfully authorized user of the firearm, can readily retrieve and use the firearm as if carried on that person.
In his report, City Attorney Chris Neumeyer said, “This law is intended to reduce firearm violence and firearm injuries and make the city safer. Having an unsecured firearm in the home is associated with an increased risk of firearm-related injury, death and suicide.
“Applying trigger locks or using locked containers when storing firearms in the home reduces the risk of firearm injury and death. Keeping a firearm locked or stored safely when it is not being carried or within immediate control ensures that it cannot be accessed and used by others without the owners’ knowledge or permission.
“This simple measure significantly decreases the risk that the firearm will be used to commit suicide, homicide or inflict injury, whether intentionally or unintentionally.”
Previously on Sept. 14, the Council approved “mass shooter training for all M.B. police officers, community trainings on firearm safety, legislative advocacy at the federal level and directed staff to identify low cost options for a ‘firearms educational video series’ covering firearm safety components,” City Manager Scott Collins said.
The City ordinance carries a penalty of jail time and a fine. “Failure to comply with any of the requirements of this chapter is a misdemeanor punishable by imprisonment in the city or county jail for a period not exceeding six months or by fine not exceeding one thousand dollars ($1,000), or by both.”
The new law gives prosecutorial authority to the city attorney, which in certain cases is authorized to prosecute violations of City ordinances. “Where the city attorney has determined that such action would be in the best interests of justice, the city attorney may specify in the accusatory pleading that the violation shall be an infraction and the violation shall be prosecuted as an infraction.”
Councilwoman Dawn Addis was the driving force behind the ordinance. In a news release, Addis said she wanted to explore gun safety after a mass shooting in Virginia Beach, Va., in May 2019. In that tragic event, a former City employee walked into his old city offices and opened fire, killing 12 and wounding five others, including a police officer.
The fact that it was a disgruntled City employee hit close to home as far away as Morro Bay. In response the City Manager embarked on a safety program costing thousands of dollars, and that included new lobby walls at City Hall and the Public Works buildings, shielding employees from the public. Such safety measures had already been built at the police and fire stations.
The City staff had brought forth several other options — closing safe storage loopholes, educational initiatives, increased funding for police and civilian training, legislative advocacy, and a gun buyback program.
The Council adopted the safety training and lobbying items but rejected a buy-back program but those were not part of the actual ordinance and the staff is supposed to come back with a program to implement.
The police have done mass shooter training in the past but Collins said not for some time, and there are a lot of new officers on the force. “Council is open to using online video trainings that have already been created, to help reduce costs,” Collins said. “I believe they want out PD to provide the training here for local residents, in part because of familiarity with our department and also as a way to build community relationships.”
However, there isn’t much of a need for the City to do this at all, as the San Luis Sportsmen’s Club shooting range on Hwy 1 offers a variety of gun safety classes including classes designed specifically for women and kids.
As for the lobbying, the City does have a contracted lobbying firm in Washington, but Collins said they wouldn’t use them. “We wouldn’t use a lobbying firm, rather, send letters to Congress and President urging their support for sensible gun safety regulations.”
Addis called the matter “urgent” for Central Coast communities. “I deeply believe,” Addis said, “it takes each of us to make and keep our communities safe from gun violence. We have to be the leaders we have been waiting for. There have been active shooters, some resulting in tragic deaths in our County, and those surrounding us to the north and south. No one is immune from gun violence.”
Indeed, after several years of relative quiet with regards to guns and violence, the Sheriff’s Office in the past year or so, has been involved in at least four shootouts with armed suspects and a San Luis Obispo police officer was murdered in another shootout with an armed mentally ill man. It was the first SLOPD officer to be shot in the line of duty and the first to die on duty since the 1960s (in a motorcycle crash).
Addis’ involvement in the issue started with the 2018, March for Life, a demonstration organized by local school kids in SLO, to lobby for more restrictive gun control laws in the wake of the Feb. 14, 2018 mass shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.
But as inspiring as that student led march was, it hasn’t translated into greater restrictions on guns.
Even in Morro Bay, where the Council voted unanimously for the new ordinance, it took some doing. The Council was supposed to hear the new ordinance in March 2020 but then the coronavirus pandemic happened and the ordinance didn’t come back until this past April, gaining final approval in September.
“For our Council,” Addis said, “to show bravery by taking this issue seriously, gives me tremendous hope that other local communities will too.”
But there were some questions raised by community members in response to the new law. Former Councilwoman Betty Winholtz wrote: “Whether I am for against this law is not my comment. What is of concern to me is how the City intends to notify the public that unwittingly they may be in violation of the law. Changing the law without noticing the populace is grossly unfair. Putting a notice on the City website is grossly insufficient.”
Winholtz added, “Gun owners will continue as they always have, not knowing they need to know there is a new law. If you truly believe this will make us safer, then you must notify the public so they can comply accordingly.”
Police Chief on Gun Safety Law
Morro Bay’s new gun safety ordinance raises a lot of questions as to who will enforce it, how it will be enforced and who will prosecute a citation. Estero Bay News sent a series of question to the Morro Bay Police and Chief Jody Cox responded.
Estero Bay News: I’m writing up the City’s new gun safety law and wanted to ask you if the PD was going to be the ones enforcing it?
Chief Jody Cox: “Yes, as the State of California already has a robust Safe Storage Law in place, the City of Morro Bay has decided to enact a local safe storage law via a city ordinance. As with other local ordinances, MBPD will follow Council direction for education, compliance, and enforcement.”
EBN: Have you guys come up with a strategy on how this will be handled — i.e. proactive enforcement or complaint driven?
Chief Cox: “There is not a proactive enforcement component to this type of ordinance, nor is it what would be considered complaint driven, i.e. someone calling to complain that a neighbor might possibly own/possess a firearm and requesting a check to confirm it is safely secured.
“This type of violation is typically determined after the fact, meaning, a firearm being reported stolen, and victim advised the firearm was kept in a dresser drawer, or an unauthorized person obtains possession of an unsecured firearm and is found in possession and/or uses the firearm illegally.”
EBN: Clearly you guys can’t just go door-to-door checking for unsecured guns without a warrant, so I am curious how the City plans to enforce this new ordinance?
Chief Cox: “Correct, as mentioned above, enforcement may be driven by actions and/or violations of the responsible party/firearm owner. MBPD will not conduct door-to-door checks.”
EBN: For example, if you respond on a medical aid to a house and the officers see shotguns on a wall rack above the fireplace without trigger locks, can you cite the owner?
Chief Cox: “This example, if the firearm is a working/operational firearm, could be considered a violation and could result in a citation.”
EBN: Or are you planning to do this like code enforcement, where you give people a chance to correct the situation before citing them?
Chief Cox: “Yes, our initial goal will be to educate our community to obtain voluntary compliance for personal safety, to prevent theft, and to prevent illegal use/possession by unauthorized individuals.”
EBN: I would think if you cited someone for a misdemeanor — having legal but unsecured guns INSIDE their home — and they challenged it in court, you’d have to show probable cause for even entering the home in the first place. Does a tip from a neighbor, lacking any other supporting evidence, constitute probable cause and allow you to enter a home without obtaining a search warrant first? How do you build a case for this that stands up in court?
Chief Cox: “Great question Neil, and “No, a tip from a neighbor (see example above) does not constitute probable cause to enter someone’s home for a possible misdemeanor violation. It would be extremely difficult (if not impossible) to obtain a search warrant for a misdemeanor ordinance violation absent some type of criminal activity involved.
“There are too many different scenarios to consider as far as building a case for criminal prosecution. In your scenario, we may possibly contact the alleged violator and educate them on the city ordinance and state law regarding proper firearm storage. As far as ‘why’ MBPD is present at the home may vary for a variety of reasons (call for service, request for assistance, complaint of disturbance, etc.)”
EBN: And have you guys gotten assurances from the D.A. that they will prosecute anyone you guys cite on this law? Or is the city attorney going to have to prosecute?
Chief Cox: “If a person is cited for the city ordinance, the city attorney would handle prosecution as either a misdemeanor or infraction. Depending on the type of violation and other related circumstances, we would consider using the state penal code section as the charging violation and the D.A.’s office would handle that type of case.”
EBN: Have you guys put out a memo to officers on how to enforce this new law? Can I get a copy of that document?
Chief Cox: “There is no document provided to staff related to this new ordinance. Supervisors discuss this in daily briefing training to familiarize staff with this type of new ordinance, as we do with other changes in law and legislation.”