Once again, we’re left recoiling from another public slaughter — and searching for a solution that might work in a nation where political dysfunction makes it difficult to pass even gun measures that enjoy overwhelming public support.
An instructive full-page graphic in the Sunday New York Times detailed how various mass shooters had obtained their guns despite mental-health problems. Some were bought by family members, but in most cases, the shooters passed background checks because their mental problems hadn’t reached the necessary legal threshold for denial.
So what can be done to reduce gun acquisition by the alienated, isolated, mentally unbalanced, (relatively) young males who commit so many of these mass murders? One promising approach is to require gun buyers to carry a specific gun-liability insurance policy, which could be done without unduly burdening responsible gun owners.
Policies could be designed so that older, long-term gun owners would pay only a nominal fee. Or the insurance requirement could apply only to future purchases. But insurance would be necessary to buy a gun from either a federally licensed dealer or a private seller.
Insurance for guns that are clearly oriented toward hunting would be relatively inexpensive. But for young buyers seeking to purchase handguns or assault-style weapons, the fees would be higher. Further, an insurer could require several character references from such an applicant.
Faced with an insurance requirement, a would-be mass murderer might be discouraged from trying to buy weapons at all. There would, after all, be some scrutiny, some questions to answer, a form to fill out.
But let’s say he proceeded. Having to supply references — and having an insurance company check with them — would alert others of his desire to acquire guns. If those people were aware of his mental problems, there would then be the possibility of preemptive intervention.
If denied an insurance policy, the potential gun buyer couldn’t legally buy guns and ammunition; unless you assume that these alienated loners have connections to gun-trafficking rings, that would be a further hurdle. Contrariwise, if he did acquire insurance, the cost of a policy tied to the lethality of the desired weapons might limit the number and type of guns he acquired.
US Representative Carolyn Maloney has introduced legislation to require such insurance on the federal level. Given the gun lobby’s stranglehold on the Republican-led Congress, action there is highly unlikely. But it’s an idea lawmakers in various states are also starting to consider.
One objection is that liability insurance doesn’t usually cover harm that is intentionally caused. Two rejoinders. First, even if such insurance applied only to gun accidents, the application process could still prove a deterrent or provide an alert. Second, some experts say insurers could be required to offer such coverage as a condition of doing business in a state.
“A state could say, everyone who purchases a gun must have liability insurance that would cover intentional shooting,” says Peter Kochenburger, deputy director of the Insurance Law Center at the University of Connecticut Law School. “The insurance companies would say, ‘We don’t do that.’ The response to that is, even if you don’t, you can be required to.”
All this would obviously encounter legal challenges from those gun enthusiasts unwilling to tolerate any inconvenience, even to accommodate a policy that could help keep guns away from mentally ill young men with murderous intent
So be it. The status quo is intolerable, as is the notion that nothing can be done about it.