San Jose, Calif., recently became the first city in the nation to pass an ordinance requiring gun owners to purchase and carry liability insurance. Drafted and passed by the city council, the law goes into effect in August. Massachusetts should pass a similar bill.
Currently, red flag laws are a key tool for keeping guns out of the hands of people who should not have them. Most red flag laws involve seeking a court-ordered restraining order against an individual if they “pos[e] an immediate and present danger of causing personal injury to himself” or others. A restraining order can last between two weeks to six months, during which time an individual may not purchase or possess firearms. Red flag laws, as well as many of the typical gun control measures, such as universal background checks and minimum age laws, represent important steps forward but sometimes fall short of preventing gun-related injuries and death.
Take the example of Robert Crimo III, the alleged Highland Park, Ill., shooter — a walking red flag. Highland Park police visited his home twice in 2019 — once when Crimo attempted suicide and again when he “said he was going to kill everyone.” The second visit was so alarming that Highland Park police filed a “clear and present danger” report to Illinois State Police and confiscated 16 knives, a dagger, and a sword. Additionally, Crimo had a troubling social media presence. A video he created featured a heavily armed cartoon soldier opening fire in a school before being gunned down by police. Despite these red flags, Crimo never received a restraining order to prevent him from buying guns. And shortly after the second 2019 home visit, Illinois State Police issued Crimo the firearms permit that allowed him to legally purchase the semiautomatic rifle that was allegedly used to kill seven and wound dozens.
So, what happened? How did Crimo obtain a permit within a year of displaying mental health warning signs? The fact is that most red flag laws permit only law enforcement or family members to directly petition courts for a restraining order. Between 2019 and 2020, only 53 firearms restraining orders were obtained in Illinois. Contrast this to the 3,112 firearm deaths that occurred in the state during this time period. There is no doubt that red flag laws, if expanded, can be part of a comprehensive public safety strategy. However, Highland Park highlights the need to expand our system for screening people who wish to purchase a gun.
Mandatory liability insurance for gun owners, requiring them to absorb the full costs associated with their gun ownership, would be a giant step forward in the Commonwealth to combat gun violence. “An Act to Require Liability Insurance for Gun Ownership,” sponsored by Representative David Linsky and Senator Michael Barrett, is currently up for debate in the next legislative session.
Mandatory gun liability insurance is analogous to car insurance. All 50 states require car owners to purchase car insurance, so if a driver is in an accident that damages property or injures or kills another person, a victim will be able to receive compensation for their costs and injuries. In addition, if a driver engages in reckless driving behavior, their premiums will rise. If this behavior continues, their premiums will rise higher, and they will eventually be priced out of driving. Similarly, if a gun owner’s gun is used in the commission of any illegal offense, they will be held liable for the cost. To have the financial means to pay for damages to the victims, gun owners must purchase insurance. These premiums can be set by the insurance companies by weighing the factors of age, the number of guns owned, the type of gun being purchased, and previous offenses.
Insurance companies in many states offer policies for gun owners who want to insure themselves voluntarily. Because the infrastructure is already in place, it would not be a heavy burden for insurers to perform background checks when determining what the appropriate amount of coverage would be.
Mandatory gun liability insurance increases the chance that people who should not have firearms do not obtain them for two main reasons. First, it alleviates the burdensome duty of screening potential gun owners away from police and onto insurance actuaries. Police are primarily focused on dealing with crime. Inevitably, overworked officers may not always find all the relevant evidence or evaluate it accurately. In contrast, insurance actuaries only have one job: assess the risk of their policyholders. Actuaries are fully trained and skilled at doing complete investigations of this nature. Further, unlike family and friends who witness violent threats or concerning behavior but fail to take action — either out of love or obliviousness — insurance actuaries have the professional incentive to assess a situation objectively and will respond to these clear red flags.
Second, mandatory gun liability insurance is a system designed to respond to risk. If a gun owner had a series of red flags that indicate a serious risk of harm posed by the owner, the type of gun, or the number of weapons owned, the insurance company would raise their premiums and price them out. Insurance companies are highly incentivized to engage in accurate risk assessment because failure to do so will result in the payment of significant financial costs.
Thus, this solution would both compensate victims and prevent, deter, and detect people like Crimo from getting a gun.
Deborah Ramirez is a professor of law at Northeastern University School of Law and co-director of the school’s Center of Law, Equity and Race. Senator Michael Barrett represents the Third Middlesex District and is cosponsor of Bill S.1537. Representative David Linsky represents the Fifth Middlesex District and is cosponsor of Bill H.2487. Jacqueline Bohatch and Anna Olsson are law students at Northeastern University School of Law.