3:48 PM EST, January 21, 2013
As the gun debate heats up, one idea seems particularly suited for Connecticut to consider: liability insurance for gun owners.
This is the kind of mandatory insurance you have to get to drive a car — and the kind of protection that costs more if you want to take what the industry knows is a calculated risk. Letting your teenager get behind the wheel is a good example.
When I wanted my son to drive the family cars, my insurance agent offered a market-based solution: pay for the risk and he could drive. Nobody said my son couldn't drive — but I had to acknowledge the extreme danger that comes with a teenage boy in the driver's seat. We know this because of extensive research on teenagers and driving by the insurance industry.
Because I'm paying more to let my son drive, I'm also paying more attention to make sure he drives safely. Advocates say the same could be done for firearms: the more dangerous the gun, or the more unsafe the home, the more you pay for insurance. While the idea for mandating liability insurance has been floating around for years, no state has ever tried it.
This wouldn't stop a shooting and other crimes, of course, but it could add another layer of safety, perhaps making it more difficult for mentally unstable people to access firearms. It might also protect gun owners, keeping them away from high-risk situations.
"There is not one perfect solution here. There are a lot of incremental steps that can each prevent a little bit of gun violence,'' said David Linsky, a state representative from Massachusetts who last week introduced legislation requiring liability insurance for gun owners in his state.
"The bigger impact is to get the insurance industry involved in trying to make guns safer. That's what happened with car insurance,'' Linsky said. "They may be able to, through the marketplace, change people's behaviors."
The idea of requiring insurance for guns surfaced 25 years ago, in an Alabama Law Review article about the Second Amendment by Nelson Lund, a law professor at George Mason University.
"One of the problems with gun control measures is that they are really designed in a way that substantially interferes with the rights of law-abiding citizens while doing very little about the behavior of criminals or irresponsible people,'' Lund said.
"My idea was to suggest an idea in which a statute might be drafted that would be designed to inhibit the possession of firearms by irresponsible people and do what liability insurance at least partly does and that is compensate the victims of irresponsible behavior.''
Obviously, criminals won't bother with insurance, gun-safety classes or storing their weapons properly. But the insurance industry, which is built upon careful analysis, could force larger changes in gun safety while keeping at least some guns out of the hands of the irresponsible.
Peter Kochenburger, a University of Connecticut Law School professor and executive director of the Insurance Law Center, noted that insurance is often used as a form of private regulation. In this case, liability insurance would also create a pool of money to compensate victims of gun violence.
Insurance companies "have the ability to collect the data and they have the analytical approach to understand the risk,'' he said. "This is their business. They make money or lose money over time by their assessment of risk. They aggregate a lot of data and assess risk."
Shortly after the Sandy Hook shootings, a Reuters columnist revived the liability insurance for guns issue, arguing that "guns as weapons are inherently dangerous to society and owners should bear the risk and true social costs."
Gun owners, columnist John Wasik said, should be required to pay for the risk that comes with weapons.
"I'm applying more of a market economics view,'' Wasik told me. "If we cannot regulate this through constructive means, there are other ways of looking at this in terms of pricing the risk."
"The responsible gun owners will not get penalized. The people who are most at risk will pay more."
"They could do really, really precise research on statistical correlations,'' Wasik said of the insurance industry. "If you make it more difficult for people to do this,'' he said, referring to irresponsible gun use, "it might prevent some needless tragedy."
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