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We Already Have a Way to Cut Gun Deaths

2013 January 1

Why can’t we regulate guns as seriously as we do cars?

In a recent column responding to the shootings in Newtown Connecticut, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof asks, “Why can’t we regulate guns as seriously as we do cars?” Kristof doesn’t follow up on that question, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about for a long time.
            I don’t hate guns, and I don’t hate most of the folks who own and use guns. I was a Kansas City Boy Scout in the mid 1950’s, and for a couple of those teenage years, I was also a National Rifle Association junior member and a fairly competitive shooter; I loved the discipline and precision of the sport. I was never first string, but I got taken stopgunsalong to a couple of interstate matches to fill out the team, and I still have some medals in a box in the closet somewhere. Though I didn’t hunt, I had many friends and relatives who did. Those were very different times (and, I’d like to think, a different NRA.)
            Coincidentally, it turns out that the 50’s were also the time when most states were beginning to adopt laws requiring automobile drivers to be licensed, and to purchase liability insurance protecting people and property that might be injured or damaged in accidents. Mandatory liability coverage is now a long-established fact in all but three states, and those three – Virginia, New Hampshire, and Mississippi – have alternative methods of enforcing driver responsibility. (Until the late ‘40’s, many states didn’t even require a driving test to get a license – South Dakota became the last to do so in 1959.)
            As we struggle with how we might come to grips with the issue of guns in our society, we could have recourse to a model that’s time-tested, and that we have become comfortable with over the years. Why can’t we treat gun use and ownership the way we treat automobile use and ownership?
            Nobody likes having to take a driving test (until we’re parents of teenagers, at which point we think it’s a great idea). Nobody likes having to deal with license renewals and, for sure, nobody likes having to pay the ever-increasing cost of auto insurance. But we accept that it’s necessary, and when our cars are damaged by another driver – or if we or someone we love is injured in an accident – we’re happy that we don’t have to go to court to get compensation for medical expenses and repairs.
            It would be awfully hard to show that our system of training, licensing, and requiring insurance coverage for automobile users has had a negative impact on the availability and accessibility of cars. In fact, the insurance industry has a vested interest in developing regulations and price points that will not unduly discourage car ownership and use. There’s no reason the same logic would not apply to firearm insurance. 
            Let me answer one obvious question before going any further: do I think there’s any possibility that what I’m suggesting could actually happen? In the United States of today, not a snowball’s chance in hell. But I would  like to get people thinking about what we could do about this dreadful reality. It seems to me useful to  recognize that, without too much acrimony, we have succeeded in coming up with a reasonable way to manage another potentially harmful technology – one that’s even more central to the daily lives of most of us — our cars. Let’s talk about it.

So, what might an insurance model
of firearms management look like?

  • Operators would be trained and licensed. Firearms safety courses would be widely available – in high schools, from arms dealers, and from other private vendors. Formal training would not be required, but applicants would have to pass a firearms safety test before getting a license to “operate” one. We could require additional training and licensing for people wishing to own firearms thought to pose particular dangers or require particular skills – just as we do for motorcyclists and truck drivers. Assault-type weapons, as opposed to traditional hunting rifles, might be an example. 
  • Firearms would be licensed and registered, and owners would be responsible for them and their use, unless they were reported lost or stolen. This would apply to guns sold or acquired privately or at gun shows as well as through registered dealers, and it would include presently owned guns.* The cost of user and firearm licenses could be kept modest, and perhaps could even be free during the first few years the system goes into effect – or for guns currently owned by individuals. Given the vast number of unregistered firearms, owners should be given a reasonable time frame in which to comply with registration requirements. 
  • Possession and use of firearms would require liability insurance. This possibility was also raised in a recent tweet from economist Nouriel Roubini. Just as for motor vehicles, the cost of insurance should reflect the skill and “driving” record of the user, as well as the type of firearm (handgun vs. shotgun vs. rifle vs. assault weapon, for example.) As with policies for multiple autos, owners of multiple firearms would pay less for additional guns after their “primary” weapon. Black powder weapons and other historic guns could be treated similarly to classic cars.
  • Insurance rates should reflect the behavior of the gun owner. Owners would be rewarded with lower premiums for safe and responsible practices: using trigger locks, for example, or keeping their weapons in locked, childproof cases(as police officers in many jurisdictions are required to do). Owners involved in gun-related accidents or injuries would be penalized with higher premiums.

DIGRESSION: One frequent (and correct) criticism from early readers of this post was that, while a liability insurance model might work for firearms owned and used by well-meaning gun owners – who could cause unintended injury to others – it would be inadequate in the case of owners who deliberately use guns in a manner that’s reckless or criminal. For them, it would have the effect of protecting against the consequences of their behavior, thus making it more, not less, likely. One reader suggested the following:

  • Liability insurance could be replaced with or supplemented by a surety bond. The surety company would be responsible for paying any injured parties, but would have the right to demand reimbursement from the owner.While even this would not deter career criminals, it would at least address some types of irresponsible behavior, for example, gun deaths or injuries resulting from barroom fights, or from incidents (not as rare as you might think) where hunters fire at a sound or movement that turns out to be one of their companions. 
  • Carrying a gun while intoxicated should be treated the same way we treat driving while intoxicated. This is one change that would almost certainly result in immediate and substantial reductions in gun injuries and deaths. Violators should face immediate restraint and detention and, when necessary, suspension of “carrying” privileges. They should also face the likelihood of increased insurance premiums.
  • As an added benefit, firearm policies could also include coverage for injuries suffered by innocent policy holders. Policies could, for example, cover injuries from firearm malfunctions and shooting range accidents (both rare, I am told) and hunting accidents (which, unfortunately, are not so rare). 

None of this is intended to, or could, replace legal penalties for criminal use of firearms. However, it would offer law enforcement some new tools for prevention, since individuals could be prosecuted for having unlicensed firearms in their possession, for not having a gun user’s license, and so on. If all legal guns are licensed and traceable, it will be substantially easier to prove that a gun is stolen and – a small side benefit – to eventually return it to its legitimate owner.
            The most significant impact of these changes, however, would be a dramatic reduction in the availability of guns for illegal uses. Gun owners would be more likely to store their guns in a safe manner, and stolen guns would be reported. All legal firearms would be traceable, along with their ownership, from the point of manufacture or importation to the end user. Any which are not, would be subject to seizure.

Just for the record, I do not now nor have I ever had any connection to the insurance industry other than as a customer – nor does anyone in my immediate family. I am by no means an expert on the Second Amendment and its judicial history – or on the many arguments about it – but it seems to me that an insurance-based approach to firearms management would no more represent an “infringement” of the right to bear arms under the United States Constitution than current requirements that gun importers and dealers pay excise taxes, or that buyers pay sales taxes on the guns they purchase. And, as one advance reader of this post said, “While I’m not a constitutional scholar, the phrase “well regulated” in the Second Amendment has to mean something.”

* NOTE: Many current proposals for regulation of firearms exclude those presently owned. Given the enormous number of firearms currently out there in the U.S., this would make a mockery of any regulatory scheme. When Australia banned certain types of guns following the Port Arthur massacre (see the Goodman/Moynihan article mentioned below), it instituted a buy-back program, paying market price plus 10%. Assuming that a licensing and registration system in the United States would impose a financial burden on some owners, such a program could enable them to dispose of their excess weapons without taking a severe financial hit.

Related reading…

  • Nicholas D. Kristof, Do We Have the Courage to Stop This? “Why can’t we regulate guns as seriously as we do cars?…Let’s treat firearms rationally as the center of a public health crisis that claims one life every 20 minutes…American schoolchildren are protected by building codes that govern stairways and windows. School buses must meet safety standards, and the bus drivers have to pass tests. Cafeteria food is regulated for safety…As one of my Facebook followers wrote after I posted about the shooting, ‘It is more difficult to adopt a pet than it is to buy a gun.’” (See also Kristof’s column: Looking for Lessons in Newtown.)  
  • Amy Goodman and Denis Moynihan, Lessons from New Town Australia, for Newtown, USA: Will New Thinking Lead to New Laws? “Martin Bryant, a troubled 28 year-old from New Town, Tasmania, took a Colt AR-15 semiautomatic rifle to the nearby tourist destination of Port Arthur. By the time he was arrested early the next day, he had killed 35 people and wounded 23. The reaction in Australia was profound, especially since it was a nation of gun lovers, target shooters and hunters…The massacre provoked an immediate national debate over gun control. Strict laws were quickly put in place, banning semiautomatic weapons and placing serious controls on gun ownership. Since that time, there has not been one mass shooting in Australia.” 
  • Derrick Z. Jackson, Obama Needs to Channel an Inner John Howard: “It will take the strongest Oval Office leadership this side of war. In my mind, it is war when annual firearm deaths are 10 times more than the 3,000 Americans killed in 9/11, and nearly five times the number of US soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistancombined.” Commenting on Australia’s buyback program, Jackson also notes: “A 2010 study done by researchers at the AustralianNationalUniversity and WilfridLaurierUniversity found that firearm homicides dropped by 59 percent and firearm suicides dropped 65 percent between 1995 and 2006. Australia’s homicide rate today is one quarter of that in the United States.”
  • Yvonne Abraham, What Do I Tell You , My Son? “Not long ago you were sitting in the bathtub, eyes welling. You kept asking me, and when I couldn’t avoid it any longer, I told you, yes, people die, but only when they are very, very old. And you believed me…I don’t want to have to explain this one to you, to lie and tell you it could never happen here…I want you to keep believing I can protect you. Even though I don’t believe it myself.” 
  • Maureen Dowd, From Apocalypse to Dystopia:  “For decades, when the public has grown more sympathetic to gun control after an attempted assassination or a spike in gun murders or a harrowing school shooting, Wayne LaPierre and his fellow N.R.A. officials have hunkered down to wait for the ‘emotional period’ or ‘hysteria,’ as they call it, to pass.” 
  • James Alan Fox, Top Ten Myths About Mass Shootings: “Some talked about the role of guns, others about mental-health services, and still more about the need for better security in schools and other public places. Whatever their agenda and the passion behind it, those advocates made certain explicit or implied assumptions about patterns in mass murder and the profile of the assailants. Unfortunately, those assumptions do not always align with the facts.” 
  • Michael D. Shear: After Shootings, a Flood of Ideas and Proposals for Curbing Gun Violence: “Specifics are hard to come by…taken together, the suggestions for legislative and executive action foreshadow a broad political debate about assault weapons, ammunition, violent video games, shoot-em-up movies, gun shows, mental health services, and permits for concealed firearms. Much of the national discussion this week has focused on a comprehensive approach, rather than just new gun controls.” 
  • Stephanie Clifford, Shop Owners Report Rise in Firearms Sales as Buyers Fear Possible New Laws:  “With gun-control legislation getting more serious discussion than it has in years, gun sales are spiking as enthusiasts stock up in advance of possible restrictions.” 
  • Ray Rivera & Alison Leigh Cowan, Gun Makers Use Home Leverage in Connecticut“Gun owners packed a hearing room in the Connecticut capital, vowing to oppose a bill that would require new markers on guns so that they are easier to trace…A representative of one of Connecticut’s major employers: the Colt Manufacturing Company… said the company would seriously consider leaving the state if the bill became law.” 
  • Joe Nocera, Guns and Mental Illness: There is no lack of sensible ideas: background checks for all gun purchasers, a national registry that would allow guns to be traced, an assault weapons ban, controls on ammunition, and so on. Nouriel Roubini, the economist, wrote in a Twitter message that gun owners should be required to have liability insurance, an intriguing idea. Some legislators who once blindly followed the bidding of the National Rifle Association are now saying they are reconsidering in the wake of Newtown.”
  • The Economist/Democracy in America (unsigned), Insurance Policy: “Nouriel Roubini, a guy who knows a lot about risk, tweets in favour of mandatory liability insurance for gun owners: ‘If we had liability insurance on guns, as we do 4 cars, we will see which insurance company would insure at which price folks with arsenals.’ It’s an idea that seems to be gathering a bit of steam.”



4 comments on “We Already Have a Way to Cut Gun Deaths

  1. Tom Harvey on said:

    I have made a post about this article in my blog (@guninsurblog) as one of the more detailed and thought out articles since Newtown. I think that in order to get an insurance system that protects everyone and is not too much of a burden on gun owners we will have to develop a system that is specific to the situation. I believe it is possible to have costs reasonable and still protect from lost, stolen or diverted firearms and the blog’s biggest project is to explore howto do that. I hope you read a number of the posts and give me some feedback from your perspective.

  2. Ben Achtenberg on said:

    Thanks for your comments, Tom — I’m glad to discover your blog (readers can check it out at, plan to explore it more when I return from an upcoming trip.

  3. Maggie Moss on said:

    Following your analysis and that of others, I created a petition on We the People for just such a gun liability proposal You can view and sign the petition here:

  4. Ron Morris on said:

    A friend started a White House petition with the exact same suggestion as this article:

    That gun owners should be required to purchase liability insurance.

    Please go here and sign it if you like it.

    Thank you.

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