02/04/2013 04:41 pm ET Updated Apr 06, 2013

Own a Gun, Carry Insurance

The White House's nine-point Plan to Reduce Gun Violence, as it's called, offers a reasoned, reasonably centrist reaction to the aching pain resulting from December's massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, a wound that in passing weeks seems to be visited by the salt of even more outrages, one painful grain at a time. Reasonableness, of course, is no guarantee of success as the President's plan winds its way through the legislative and policy apparatus. And so while the conversation is still in its formative stage, I'd like to encourage discussion of a tenth way.

Serious consideration should be given to reviving a plan first floated in Illinois that called for all gun owners to carry liability insurance. Such a plan could address three long-standing obstacles to the passage of legislation to mitigate the harm caused by firearms: from the right, the two primary concerns have been infringement of 2nd Amendment rights and the expansion of government into private affairs; from the left, the tide toward unfettered access to owning and carrying weapons.

The state's interest in requiring insurance as a condition for exercising variety of privileges is long established, the clearest being the requirement that drivers carry auto insurance. The primary purpose of a motor vehicle is not to inflict damage or personal injury, but property damage and death are costly consequences of their use. Accepting the gun lobby's argument that a firearm is simply a tool and that the gun user is responsible for its misuse, the correlation to auto insurance stands up. Indeed, the NRA already offers limited liability coverage to its members. Yes, there is the distinction that gun ownership is a right, not a privilege. But free speech is also a right we both hold dear and on which we have come to accept some limits.

The state's interest is clear: in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that in 2000, the most recent period for which data are available, total medical costs from gunshot injuries were $822 million, with total productivity losses topping $16.6 billion. It is by no means irresponsible to insure against such costs. Requiring owners of firearms to carry, say, $1 million in liability insurance as proposed in the Illinois legislation, would serve two purposes: It would offer recourse to those affected by gun violence, and it would raise the bar of responsibility for gun owners. (The Affordable Care Act expressly protects gun owners from having to disclose the presence or use of legal weapons in applications for health insurance.)

Might it chill ownership? Perhaps. But it would certainly encourage, through the private sector, an increase in safe handling practices, shift some of the enforcement burden from government to insurance companies and gun owners and reduce the costs associated with emergency room visits currently borne by hospitals and the government.

Gun-owner insurance policies should be renewable annually, and any change to the factors that figure into the initial premium calculations ought to be taken into account.

I'm no actuary, but if an algorithm can be built to account for both behavioral risk and responsibility when applying for medical and auto insurance, it ought to be an easy task to do the same for firearms. It's numbers: the more responsible the gun owner, the lower the premium. The greater the risk factors associated with the applicant, the higher the premium.

Consider the following questions that might be asked before someone qualified for firearm insurance, a necessity for all existing permit holders as well as for the purchase any any new firearm:

Will the weapon/s be kept in you home? Do you have a gun safe? Have you ever had a gun stolen? Do you live with children under the age of 18? Does anyone under the age of 25 live in your house (auto premiums ratchet down as drivers age, there is no reason, given the profiles of recent mass killers that these premiums should not reflect the risks posed by this age group)? How many guns do you own? Have you ever had a gun stolen? Have you purchased Teflon-coated ammunition? Have you ever discharged a weapon outside a shooting range or without a hunting license? Are you licensed to carry a concealed weapon?

There is debate now about screening for mental illness in applying for a gun license, but it seems fair to ask whether the applicant or anyone residing with the applicant has ever been treated for mental illness, has ever used narcotics, how frequently they consume alcohol, etc.

Getting into the nitty-gritty, of course, such a plan poses a number of problems, both in what questions can be asked to feed the actuarial tables and in assessing the consequences of requiring insurance. Where are the lines to be drawn for the actuaries? Is it OK to ask an applicant about race or ZIP code? (The latter is a component of auto insurance applications, and a matter of some debate.)

Another factor to consider: if premiums are high, only the wealthy will be able to afford insurance, yet the poor - the predominant victims of crime - would arguably be those who most need a weapon for self-defense. The cost of insurance might price the poor out of gun ownership, and if those who use guns in to commit crimes are predominantly poor this might be a desirous effect. But most guns used in crimes are not owned legally by those using them, and so insurance would have little bearing on the use of the gun in the crime itself. However, if lack of insurance were criminalized or opened the violator to civil liability, it would add a further cost - in addition to incarceration - to the illegal use of a firearm.

There have been objections raised that an insurance plan might open legitimate gun owners to intrusive checks by the authorities, but the police don't have random checks for auto insurance. The question only arises when there is a triggering event.

Attaching a particular gun to a crime would rely on other policy changes facing strong opposition from the gun-rights lobby. As Prof. Mark A.R. Kleiman of UCLA's Luskin School of Public Policy points out, unless weapons are required to imprint a mark on bullets fired from it, it is well nigh impossible to track a gun used, for example, in a drive-by shooting.

The state has a long history of requiring liability insurance for those it licenses, from drivers to building contractors to medical doctors. To not carry insurance carries sanctions. The nation now seems primed to have a reasoned conversation about how we deal with our bloody history of gun violence, and requiring liability insurance for those who own deadly weapons seems a fitting piece of a broader approach.