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Wednesday, Aug 17, 2022

Guns, Responsibility and Liability

It’s not about who held the gun and why he used it the way he did.

It’s about a country where there are by some counts more guns than there are people, about the heartbreaking frequency with which they take one, two, 27, 49 lives in less time than it takes to tap out a text asking what to bring home for dinner. It’s about military-style weapons in the hands of anyone with an easy-to-get permit and about more than half of the 41,000 suicides in this country each year.

Whether you cleave to an uncompromised view of the Second Amendment or see room in its Enlightenment-era punctuation for a more nuanced reading, the latest massacre, in Orlando, Fla., has got to give you pause.

So what to do?

It’s not feasible – perhaps not even desirable – to ban guns, and despite some rhetoric to that effect, there’s really not a serious movement to do that. There might be a strong case for a ban on assault-style weapons such as the ones used in Orlando and Sandy Hook, but political reality makes that seem unlikely as well.

A step in the right direction, one that keeps guns in the hands of responsible owners while adding a greater layer of accountability to the right to bear arms, is to require all owners of firearms to have special insurance policies.

Make it a requirement that before purchasing a firearm, the prospective owner must have proof of insurance.

There is already precedent for the state to require insurance for the exercise of certain privileges; we all must have auto insurance, for instance. Motor vehicles are not created to inflict harm, but damage to people and property is a consequence of their use. And we have gotten along just fine with some restrictions on rights enumerated in the Constitution: Felons can’t vote, the age of majority is arbitrary and has been shifted. Free speech is also guaranteed, and yet we have decided as a society that we can accept some limits on the First Amendment for the greater good.

And, of course, the Constitution makes no provision for licensing guns, but we do it.

Let’s make an economic case: 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. The number of gun-related homicides has remained essentially flat since then.

Gun buyers should be required to carry liability insurance. Those premiums should be adjusted based on the type of weapon they wish to acquire, renewable annually, and adjusted based on actuarial tables (if the effort contributes in a small way to a decline in gun-related injuries, over time rates would have to go down) and changes in the variables that figure into the initial premium calculations. If we can figure out an algorithm that accounts for behavioral probabilities when applying for medical and auto insurance, it ought to be an easy task to do the same for firearms.

Consider the questions that might be asked as part of the vetting process to acquire firearm insurance:

Will the weapon(s) be kept in your 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? How many guns do you own? Are you licensed to carry a concealed weapon? Are you buying a handgun, a shotgun, an AR-15?

The state has a long history of requiring insurance for those it licenses, from drivers to plumbers to medical doctors. To not carry insurance often carries sanctions. And to the objection that an insurance plan might open responsible gun owners to intrusive checks by the authorities, remember, police are not empowered to conduct random checks for auto insurance. The question of insurance only arises when there is a triggering event.

The nation – again – needs to have a conversation about how we deal with our bloody history of gun violence and the toll it takes on us. Requiring liability insurance for those who own deadly weapons seems a fitting topic to engage as part of that discussion.


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