Of all the ideas I’ve heard to curb gun violence, one of most intriguing is also one of the least discussed.
It comes my way from a hyper-smart retired Navy commander who calls occasionally with suggestions. His latest: Require gun owners to carry liability insurance for the firearms they own.
Here’s how it would work. Before anyone could buy a gun or ammunition, he or she would have to acquire an insurance policy for it and present proof of that policy to the gun shop, gun-show dealer, or private seller. Current gun owners would also have to carry such insurance.
Such a requirement would quite literally put a premium — a market premium — on sanity and safety.
Consider the mentally disturbed young men who commit so many of these public massacres. What if they or their families had to buy insurance before getting a gun? Some likely wouldn’t even try. But even if they did, it’s hard to imagine a company selling liability insurance — particularly not for a military-style rifle like an AR-15 — to someone so obviously troubled. Yes, yes, gun folks, I know that a determined young killer could use a knife or an ax or a baseball bat instead. But there are crucial differences in degree of lethality, speed of injury infliction, and opportunity for potential victims to fight back or escape.
Such a requirement would also effectively close the gun-show loophole; if potential buyers didn’t have proof of insurance, it would be illegal to sell to them, plain and simple.
Now consider how an insurance requirement could change gun ownership. The more potentially lethal the weapon, the more a liability policy would cost. A hunter who wanted a pump-action shotgun or a lever- or bolt-action rifle — that is, firearms that don’t reload automatically after the trigger is pulled — would pay only a nominal fee. A traditional semi-automatic big-game rifle — a .308 or a .30-06 or a .30-30, say — with a limited magazine might cost just a little more to insure.
But if you want or own a military-style semi-automatic with features like a pistol grip, which lets you spray fire from waist-level; a collapsible stock, which makes a weapon easier to conceal; or a high-capacity detachable magazine, well, insuring one of those would be far more expensive. That expense would not only discourage ownership of those types of weapons; it would also be a disincentive to accumulating an arsenal of guns.
To meet an objection before it’s made, this would hardly be a big imposition on sportsmen. Many states already limit the magazine capacity for hunters, usually to three shells for shotguns and five or six cartridges for rifles. Further, real hunters know that you usually don’t get more than one or two shots at a deer or elk or other game animal anyway.
An insurance requirement would also lead to more effective storage of guns and ammunition.
Some states already have safe gun-and-ammo storage laws. But since we don’t, and aren’t about to have government inspectors going into individuals’ homes, those laws are largely unenforceable. In contrast, an insurer would likely want proof that you have a trigger lock or gun safe or a lockbox for ammunition; the safer that storage, the bigger break you would get on your rates.
All told, then, such a requirement would use the mechanism of insurance to create incentives for safe, responsible, lower-risk gun ownership.
There are obviously issues that would have to be worked out. For example, such a requirement would conflict with the notion that any checks or preconditions for gun ownership must be instantaneous, for the gun buyer’s convenience. But why should that notion trump public safety?
Nor would an insurance requirement be a stand-alone cure-all. Rather, it should be one part of a larger gun-policy package.
It’s probably too reasonable an idea for those uncompromising types who insist, contra the Supreme Court, that the right to own a gun is absolute and simply can’t be qualified or conditioned in any way. But as policy makers look for smart, practical ways to reduce gun violence, such a sensible marriage of right and responsibility should be on their radar screen.