Those searching for a compromise in the ongoing gun-control debate should pay special attention to the beneficial consequences of requiring gun owners to carry insurance.
Rapid-fire weapons capable of mass casualties would require higher premiums than less-lethal firearms. Some gun owners would avoid the high rates by purchasing less-lethal weapons, decreasing over time the number of rapid-fire weapons and their accessories in America.
Responsible gun ownership would increase. A weapon that is secured when not in use is less likely to be used in an illegal or harmful way. Requiring gun owners to carry theft insurance, for example, would provide an effective incentive for proper firearm storage. In addition, insurance companies can magnify this benefit by imposing caps on gun policies, making culpable gun owners personally liable for damages above the cap.
Gun owners would take advantage of training programs to decrease their insurance premiums, which would improve proper weapons training, storage and usage.
Requiring gun insurance would encourage manufacturers to develop technologies that disable guns except when being used by the owner or with the owner's explicit authorization.
Background checks could be used to calculate insurance premiums. Persons who qualify for gun ownership, but whose risk-potential is higher than the average, would pay more. Age, criminal record and mental health history are important factors in these calculations.
Insuring guns provides a means for financially compensating victims of unjustified gun violence — not only families who have lost loved ones, but also non-fatal shooting victims and those who are assaulted with guns.
Requiring gun-owner insurance as a form of gun safety regulation is not a radical change in social policy. It is common for our society to throw the risk on the owner of a potentially harmful commodity. Motor vehicles, for example, must be registered and insured in case their use harms humans or property; and the thrill of driving a high-performance car comes with a higher insurance premium.
States often have insurance requirements for the owners of motorcycles, snowmobiles, boats, exotic wild animals — even pit bulls. Owners of establishments that sell alcohol, such as restaurants and bars, are often required to carry insurance for damages caused by intoxicated patrons.
Purchasing and owning a gun has not historically been viewed as a behavior that justifies the imposition of civil liability or the requirement of insurance coverage. That assumption, however, must be re-examined in light of the number of guns and the degree of gun violence in the U.S.
There are 89 guns for every 100 Americans; one-third of the 30,000-plus killed each year by firearms are under the age of 20; firearms are involved with 60 percent of the 12,000-plus murders that occur yearly; there are annually approximately 60,000 nonfatal firearm injuries; finally, lifetime medical costs for victims of gun violence who were shot during 1997 have been estimated at $2.3 billion, approximately half of which is paid by U.S. taxpayers.
We must recognize gun ownership as behavior that directly or indirectly poses substantial risks to society, even if it also has significant benefits, such as the joys of hunting and marksmanship and the sense of security associated with having a weapon in the home for self-defense. But the gun owners who enjoy the benefits of owning and using weapons also must pay a proper share of the average costs that their conduct imposes on society.
Perhaps the chief virtue of mandated gun-owner insurance is that it is consistent with the Second Amendment. No one who can safely be entrusted with the type of gun that is protected by the Second Amendment will be prevented from owning that type of gun. Gun insurance does not take away our liberties; it merely requires gun owners to pay the social cost of the exercise of that liberty. States already require doctors to carry minimum levels of professional liability insurance to exercise their right to practice their vocations, impose content-neutral insurance requirements on political demonstrations in public forums and mandate insurance for various types of vehicles, despite the constitutional right to travel.
Gun-insurance mandates won't solve illegal gun possession or illegal gun use, and no form of regulation will bring an end to gun violence. But we must not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Mandating gun insurance for legally owned weapons will reduce the availability of guns for the illegal gun market. If that reduces the carnage, even by a small margin, it will be worth it.
H.L. Pohlman is a professor of political science and director of The Clarke Forum for Contemporary Issues at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Penn.