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Like drivers, gun owners may soon need insurance

Legislators in Massachusetts and other states are proposing mandatory liability insurance for firearms.

Reuters file

Legislators in Massachusetts and other states are proposing mandatory liability insurance for firearms.

NEW YORK — In a society sharply divided over efforts to curb violence and the right to bear arms, both sides of the gun debate seem to agree on at least one thing: a bigger role for the insurance industry in a heavily armed society.

But just what that role should be, and whether insurers will choose to accept it, are still in dispute.

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Lawmakers in at least half a dozen states, including California, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, and Pennsylvania, have proposed legislation this year that would require gun owners to buy liability insurance — much as car owners are required to buy auto insurance. Doing so would give a financial incentive for safe behavior, they hope, as people with less dangerous weapons or safety locks could qualify for lower rates.

‘‘I believe that if we get the private sector and insurance companies involved in gun safety, we can help prevent a number of gun tragedies every year,’’ said David P. Linsky, a Democratic state representative in Massachusetts who wants to require gun owners to buy insurance, which he believes will encourage more responsible behavior and reduce accidental shootings. ‘‘Insurance companies are very good at evaluating risk factors and setting their premiums appropriately.’’

Groups representing gun owners oppose efforts to make insurance mandatory, arguing that law-abiding people should not be forced to buy insurance to exercise their constitutional right to bear arms. But some groups, including the National Rifle Association, endorse voluntary liability policies.And as several states pass laws making it easier for people to carry concealed weapons and use them for self-defense, some gun groups are now selling policies to cover some of the legal costs stemming from such shootings.

The US Concealed Carry Association recently began selling what it calls ‘‘Self-Defense Shield.’’ “If you’re forced to justifiably use your gun in self-defense,’’ its website says, ‘‘Self-Defense SHIELD will help pay for your expert pro-2d Amendment lawyer by reimbursing your legal-defense expenses following your acquittal — an ingenious system critical to the arsenal of any responsibly armed citizen.’’

Some specialized underwriters are reviewing what their policies cover when it comes to shootings and considering whether they should offer new types of coverage for gun owners. And as more states pass laws allowing people to bring guns to public venues — including restaurants, bars, churches, and the parking lots of their workplaces — some business groups have expressed concerns that they could be held liable for shootings on their properties, which could drive up insurance costs.

The insurance industry is wary of some of the proposals to require gun owners to buy liability coverage — and particularly of bills, like one that was filed in New York, that would require coverage for damages resulting not just from negligence but also from ‘‘willful acts.’’

Robert P. Hartwig, the president of the Insurance Information Institute, said that insurance generally covers accidents and unintentional acts — not intentional or illegal ones.

“Insurance will cover you if your home burns down in an electrical fire, but it will not cover you if you burn down your own house, and you cannot insure yourself for arson,’’ he said.

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