By Ian Simpson
WASHINGTON, Feb 6 (Reuters) - Lawmakers eager to reduce gun violence in their states are proposing mandatory liability insurance for American firearm owners as a new way to limit deaths and injuries.
Provoked by the Dec. 14 massacre of 20 schoolchildren and six adults at a school in Newtown, Connecticut, the legislators hope to harness market forces as another tool for gun control.
Proponents argue that operators of vehicles, for example, must have liability insurance, so gun owners should as well. Those who take safety courses, have fewer and safer weapons, and store them securely could get lower rates than those who did not, they say.
"We may not be able to reduce intentional shootings as a result of liability insurance, but I do believe we can reduce accidental shootings," said David Linsky, a Democratic representative in Massachusetts who has proposed mandatory insurance for gun owners.
California on Tuesday became at least the fourth state to have a liability insurance bill introduced, following Massachusetts, Maryland and Connecticut.
No state has a gun liability insurance law. Since 2003, almost two dozen such bills have been rejected nationwide, 15 of them in New York, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The liability insurance proposals come as President Barack Obama is campaigning for stricter federal gun controls.
Efforts to control guns face an uphill climb politically in the face of a strong pro-gun lobby, including the National Rifle Association (NRA), and constitutional protection for firearms ownership.
"ACCIDENTS DO HAPPEN"
The NRA itself offers "excess personal liability" insurance of up to $250,000 for hunters and for shooters at competitions or private ranges, according to its website.
"Because accidents do happen no matter how careful you are," the website says.
A Maryland proposal would mandate that anyone possessing a firearm have liability insurance of at least $250,000. It requires anyone selling, renting out or transferring a gun to verify that the person getting it has liability insurance.
Mandating liability insurance would help pay for damage caused by guns, Linsky said. But the main reason "is to get the marketplace involved in making gun ownership safer," he said.
NRA spokeswoman Stephanie Samford said the organization opposed liability insurance for gun owners because it was "economically discriminatory."
"You don't have to carry insurance to exercise any other constitutional right," Samford said.
Robert Hartwig, the president of the Insurance Information Institute in New York, said that since no market now existed for gun liability insurance lawmakers would have to negotiate coverage criteria with insurers.
"A legislature could in theory mandate gun liability coverage, but you cannot require insurers to offer that coverage," Hartwig said.
If insurers declined to offer coverage, states themselves might have to set up insurance liability programs, Hartwig said.
Some homeowners' policies cover accidental gun discharges, but those cases are a small fraction of the millions of claims filed each year, he said.
The cost of U.S. injuries from firearms was about $174 billion in 2010, including lost work time, medical care and insurance, according to a breakdown of U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data by the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation.
Of the 31,328 deaths by firearm in 2010, 1.9 percent were accidents and 0.8 percent were of undetermined intent, according to CDC and National Vital Statistics Report numbers on the institute's website. The rest were suicides and homicides. (Reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Daniel Trotta and Grant McCool)