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The Case for Compulsory Gun Insurance

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We are not going to get rid of firearms in our county even though the public is becoming distraught about the unbearable level of gun deaths and injuries. Some blame our historic gun culture while others blame deranged individuals for the tragedies dominating the news. Most nations protect their citizens through tight regulation of gun ownership for those other than police and military personnel. Total registration, investigation of potential gun owners, and severe penalties for anyone who lets a firearm escape his or her control are among the ways those governments control the danger. However, just as national health insurance is common elsewhere but could not be implemented here, so stringent gun control while the norm elsewhere seems politically impossible here.

Still, we can explore a private sector based means of assistance. Requiring insurance is one of the few tools that can deal with the problem without focusing obsessively on the cause. The U.S. already has two strong systems that promote prevention and secure compensation for risks common to people in our society. They are Workers Compensation and car insurance. No fault car insurance is especially helpful.

Compulsory gun insurance is of absolute importance in a country where Second Amendment rights dominate and win out over the rights of non-gun owners. I'm not talking about liability insurance as some have now through the NRA to cover the protection of gun owners in court cases and pay some of their legal obligations. I'm talking about insurance that is designed to compensate survivors and victims for the damage to their lives resulting from being shot. It would cover medical expenses, lost wages and support for dependents. Significantly, to deal with real needs, compensation would not depend on proving fault or intention by the gun owner.

Reasonable people who want to own and use guns would be wise to support requiring insurance. The bogus claim that the way to gun safety is through "good guys with guns" is wearing thin and current political immunity of guns from regulation may prove to be temporary.  If the all or nothing demand for total gun rights collapses under the weight of the carnage, gun owners may face new laws that are a serious burden to them.  Insurance has worked to facilitate many activities with associated risks other than guns and can serve this role for firearms as well.

With the new massacre at the Navy Yard, the debate has taken on new energy and we are moving toward many decision points about the easy availability of guns. The search for answers seems to be stuck due the opposition of the body of hysterical gun defenders who feel that no degree of harm justifies any interference with gun ownership and usage.  We must stop the bloodshed. The proposed solutions such as background checks, and restricting weapon types would help greatly.  More serious restrictions such as registration or fingerprinting are not on the table in most of the US, even though they are commonplace in other countries and a few states.  There are a limited number of tools that would be effective and not be a great burden on gun owners including compulsory gun insurance.

After the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School, there were calls for requiring this insurance.  They were made by commentators such as John Wasik (and here) and Jordan Weissmann at the Atlantic.  It was only a few days before there was a "backlash" from organizations and individuals in the gun world and some neutral commentators.  These ranged from contempt to a pessimistic but useful analysis by journalist Megan McArdle.  All of the media discussion in the next months revolved around the concept of mandating gun owners to buy ordinary liability insurance to cover misuse or accidents with the guns.  No one addressed the problems and benefits of having insurance cover criminal acts by gun owners and people who illegally get their hands on the gun.

In many ways, guns are just another thing with a built in danger that we allow in our society.  There are many of these such as vehicles, risks to workers, construction in public spaces and hazards in the operations of most businesses.  Insurance has played a major role in bringing safety to almost any activity, other than having firearms, that carries a risk of injury to the public. However to work, required gun insurance must to be implemented in a way designed specifically for guns that encourages safe practices, compensates victims and is not viewed as an unreasonable burden by reasonable people. 

Insurance for employees and motor vehicles is now seen as normal and few question the need for universal coverage.  These two types of insurance cost far more than would insurance for gun victims  because they pay for vast numbers of non-fatal injuries.  There are 2.8 million reportable workplace injuries in 2011 (Bureau of Labor Statistics) and 3.3 million motor vehicle injuries (CDC).  Compare that to the annual 74,000 injuries caused by firearms.  It is injuries and not deaths that create huge costs for insurance companies.  Unfortunately, insurance for responsible gun owners need not be very expensive at all because so many victims die outright.

It's not surprising that the the gun lobby is opposed to compulsory gun insurance.  They have opposed all measures to hold gun owners responsible for the effects of their guns unless the owner is directly engaged in behavior that is universally recognized as criminal.  They are especially opposed to holding gun owners or sellers responsible for anyone else's use of their guns. The suggestion that they should be financially responsible for the injuries after their gun was stolen produces an immediate angry response on the part of gun advocates. 

At first glance one would expect the insurance industry to be eager to get a new source of customers and profits. However, there is a major catch.  The insurance industry is adamantly opposed to any kind of compulsory insurance because it fears there would be  associated regulation of the insurance itself. It fought compulsory insurance  for cars since the 1920's but has largely given up in that arena.  Insurers much prefer to sell on the basis of customer's fear of lawsuits without oversight of insurance prices and practices .

The main argument made by the insurance trade groups is to claim that accidents are few and insurance can absolutely not cover intentional and criminal acts (typical industry public statement) including most gun injuries and deaths.  However, perhaps surprisingly, any kind of insurance that is required by the government to protect the public or by third parties for their own protection pays to the victim regardless of the intentions of anyone else including the insurance owner.  Check your homeowner's insurance, it pays your mortgage holder if you destroy your house with arson.  Car insurance pays pedestrians run down on purpose in most states since 1937.  Most business liability insurance pays for employees who attack customers, etc.  A gun insurance mandate can and should require payment to victims for the intentional or criminal acts of anyone even the gun owner.  The insurance just can not pay directly to the wrongdoer.  It is important to challenge the insurance industry's central argument.  Otherwise, the gun insurance offered will be too limited to help the public.

There are two kinds of danger from guns that are legally owned: the gun owner or a person with the owners permission can use the gun to shoot someone; or the gun owner may lose control of the gun to a dangerous person who then illegally possesses the gun. A new approach is needed to address the second danger and one tool is to require appropriate insurance.  Virtually all of the guns that kill or injure start out in legal hands. Allowing a gun to get into the hands of someone who does not pick up the insurance is the greatest danger to the public.One of the most important principles for keeping insurance in effect is that an insurer responsible for a gun should not be relieved of that responsibility if the gun is lost, stolen or illegally sold by the gun owner.

Insurance should be required for manufacturers of guns that continues in effect until it is replaced by the next owner's insurance which also continues. If the chain is broken then the last insurer should be on the hook. That way we can be sure that insurance always exists for a particular gun without a need for the government to  register or track the guns or gun owners. Replacing the need for registration with an insurance requirement is practical and satisfies many of the fears of gun advocates.