Between the horrifying massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut in December and the congressional hearings that took place this week on the topic of gun control, guns are in the forefront of the news. While Americans and our leaders argue over the myriad of options for making the U.S. a safer country while still preserving Second Amendment rights, one highly controversial solution has been proposed yet again: requiring gun owners to carry liability insurance.
In Massachusetts, lawmakers are currently considering a bill that requires gun owners to purchase liability insurance in the event their gun is used to injure someone. Proponents argue that it would serve two purposes: 1) provide legal recourse for people injured by guns, and 2) financially incent gun owners to receive proper training and take greater gun-safety measures in return for lower rates. Other states will likely follow suit. Whether bills like these pass remains to be seen.
It’s a creative idea, but will it really work?
The Nuts and Bolts of Liability Insurance
The numbers on gun injuries and death indicate undeniably that guns are dangerous. However, cars also injure and kill people, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t own and use them. One of the ways that cars have been made less of a threat is with liability insurance, which is mandatory in all but two states. Insurance makes being on the road safer because it is extremely expensive if you have a poor driving record or are in a demographic (young males, for example) known for being high risk on the road. The financial incentive encourages behavior that reduces the risk of accidents.
When it comes to gun liability insurance, it would work a lot like car insurance. You would have to show proof that you have it before applying for a gun permit. Sellers would have to check for proof of insurance before every transaction. And the insurance company, as with life and car insurance, would have the right to collect and keep records about your age, mental health, address, marital status, credit records, how guns are stored and used, and other data that would help determine cost. The riskier your profile, the less likely you would be able to afford to buy insurance. Thus, it would go a long way toward keeping guns out of the hands of those who are most likely to abuse them.
Why the Opposition?
Most of us accept the need for various types of insurance—it’s not always fair, we don’t always use it, but it helps spread the load of risk across society, particularly in the case of personal danger. However, opponents to gun insurance argue that it infringes on their Second Amendment rights by making gun ownership prohibitively expensive and places an unfair burden on legal, upstanding gun owners. Many gun owners see it as inappropriate encroachment by the government on their freedom. Second Amendment expert Stephen Halbrook says gun liability insurance would be so necessarily complex as to be unfeasible. And what about legal gun owners being held liable for crimes committed by third parties if the gun is lost or stolen? Opponents to insurance argue that most crimes are committed by people who steal guns and that forcing responsible gun owners to pay for injuries or death committed by a third party is a massive overreach.
The NRA and Insurance
The NRA is strongly opposed to mandatory liability insurance for gun owners; however, they do provide liability coverage for gun shows, gun sellers, and private owners who are NRA members. It would seem it is not liability insurance they oppose, but rather legislation that requires it. The NRA’s primary insurance product protects gun shows and sellers against liability if someone is injured or killed during the show, but as soon as the gun leaves the building, it is uninsured unless the owner specifically buys an individual policy.
The Choice Between Bans or Insurance
It seems likely that we will see some increases in gun control in the U.S., especially given the wide support of most Americans for common-sense gun laws. However, outright bans are unlikely–even on controversial assault-style weapons–and the fewer regulations, restrictions, and bans on guns, the higher the likelihood that liability insurance will continue to be debated.