In the wake of the shooting spree in Tucson, Ariz., gun sales across the country are soaring. But many first-time and longtime gun owners aren't aware of an added layer of protection -- self-defense insurance, which could save tens of thousands of dollars in court costs.
Many gun owners wrongly assume their homeowner's insurance policies include self-defense coverage, says John Freeman, a criminal defense attorney in Troy, Mich. There are more than 250 million privately owned firearms in the United States.
“These gun owners are really operating without a net,” Freeman says. “Even if they are defending themselves, there are often (criminal) charges. I think this is an area that’s under-served in the gun community.”
Self-defense insurance is sold by just a handful of companies in the United States, including one insurer endorsed by the National Rifle Association. These policies offer coverage in cases when a gun owner shoots his weapon while defending himself or his property and causes injury or death.
In most instances, homeowner's policies contain a provision that excludes coverage for injury or damage caused intentionally by the insured person, says Steve Mannion, a New Jersey attorney and director of Sheepdog Academy, a firearms training firm. For example, if someone is injured because a gun is accidentally discharged while the owner is cleaning it, the homeowner’s insurance likely would cover it. But if the person intentionally shoots an intruder, most homeowner’s policies wouldn’t pay out, Mannion says.
While not all self-defense cases are deadly, gun owners should brace for criminal charges anytime they brandish a weapon to defend themselves, says Dennis Golden, president of IM-Safe LLC, a self-defense company in Simsbury, Conn.
“As soon as you’re involved in something like this, you’re opening up Pandora’s box,” Golden says. “You need to do anything you can to protect yourself. Bad guys like to sue people.”
Few policies sold
One of the best-known policies for self-defense is provided through the National Rifle Association; that coverage is underwritten by Lockton Affinity of Overland Park, Kan. Of the NRA’s roughly 4 million members, fewer than 10,000 carry this coverage, says Jeff Hewitt, senior vice president at Lockton Affinity, an affiliate of Lockton Cos.
“There’s just an educational hurdle with it,” Hewitt says. “People just think their homeowner’s insurance will cover everything.”
The NRA-endorsed coverage offers a $100,000 policy for $165 a year and a $250,000 policy for $254 a year. The policy pays legal fees for criminal and civil defense as long as the person is not guilty.
In the case of someone found guilty in criminal court, the coverage would not pay criminal or civil legal fees. But if a person is found not guilty, the policy would pay the criminal and civil costs but would not cover settlement of a civil lawsuit.
Other insurance companies have begun selling similar policies. Bill Hopkins, president of MMD Brokers LLC in Albuquerque, N.M., says his firm began selling self-defense insurance policies about 18 months ago. A policy is sold only to someone who has a permit to carry a concealed weapon. MMD Brokers offers one policy with $100,000 in coverage and another policy with $250,000 in coverage.
A case of self-defense
Experts point to a 2006 Iowa Supreme Court case as an example of the need for gun owners to carry self-defense insurance. The court ruled that a mother of three who shot and killed an intruder acted intentionally. Therefore, her homeowner's and farm insurance policies didn't have to pay for her defense in a wrongful-death lawsuit filed by the intruder's survivors.
Tracey Roberts was at her home in rural Iowa with her three children on the evening of Dec. 13, 2001. While she was upstairs preparing her 1-year-old daughter for a bath, she heard noises downstairs. When she looked downstairs, she saw two people coming toward her -- Dustin Wehde and an unidentified second intruder.
Roberts took her 1-year-old into a room where her 11-year-old and 3-year-old sons were watching a video. Roberts was grabbed from behind and pulled into a hallway by the intruders. Wehde and the other intruder then assaulted Roberts. She was choked with pantyhose.
Roberts then woke up on the floor of the guest bedroom. She heard yelling down the hallway and ran toward the noise. Roberts was grabbed again and assaulted by the two intruders, but she freed herself and ran into her bedroom. While Wehde was standing over her and grabbing at her, she opened a gun safe between her bed and dresser and pulled out a 9mm gun. She managed to fire the gun and hit Wehde, who fell to the floor. The other intruder fled the house.
After shooting Wehde, Roberts took the 9mm pistol and a revolver, which also was in the gun safe, and rushed to the bedroom where her children were. The kids were fine. Roberts then saw a figure moving near her bedroom and instructed the figure not to move. The figure continued to move, so Roberts fired a warning shot from the revolver. When the figure kept moving, she fired the revolver several times at the figure. She then closed the bedroom door and went downstairs, where her oldest son called 911.
Wehde died from the gunshot wounds inflicted by Roberts. Roberts was not charged in criminal court. The civil case was dismissed, but she wanted her insurance company to pay her civil legal fees.
The Iowa Supreme Court upheld earlier court rulings that Roberts' policies with AMCO Insurance Co. and Allied Property and Casualty Insurance Co. would not cover her legal fees because she acted intentionally.
Self-defense insurance facts
What is self-defense insurance? Self-defense insurance typically will cover a person’s legal expenses if he is charged criminally in a self-defense shooting case and is not guilty or the charges are dropped. Some policies also will cover a civil defense, but not all policies will make a payment for a civil settlement.
Where can I get it? It’s typically available from so-called "surplus lines" carriers, which write coverage that isn't widely available, Hopkins says.
Should I buy this even if I use my gun only for hunting? Insurance companies say that if there’s even a chance you may use the gun for self-defense, you should look at buying a self-defense policy. Hopkins, the president of MMD Brokers, recommends that people who carry concealed weapons give serious consideration to such coverage.
Can I purchase this in every state? Not necessarily. All states have different rules.
For example, Kentucky and Alaska have restrictions on out-of-state "surplus lines" insurance carriers, says Terry Chodosh, a retired Secret Service agent and president of LEOSA Self Defense Protection in Southern California, which offers self-defense insurance to retired police officers. New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Montana and West Virginia all have rigorous regulations for companies that sell insurance online. California doesn't even recognize self-defense insurance coverage.
Are there different policies if I’m a retired police officer? Yes, the NRA just launched a special plan for retired officers. Retired police officers can buy a policy with a $25,000 limit for $50 a year. Chodosh’s firm sells plans only to retired cops. Retired officers can buy a $300,000 policy for $250 a year or a $500,000 policy for $300 a year.
Does this insurance cover defense of others? Not usually. These policies typically pay out if the policyholder is defending himself. Mannion, the New Jersey attorney, says that if a homeowner shoots at an intruder because a child of the homeowner is in danger, most self-defense policies won’t pay out.
When does the policy pay out? Most policies won’t pay out until the person is acquitted or the charges are dismissed in court. However, Chodosh’s policy will give an immediate payout of $5,000 once a retired police officer is charged. Again, Chodosh's policy is available only to retired cops.
Will this cover all of my court costs? Each policy has a maximum coverage, with most policies not exceeding $500,000. The cost of a criminal defense or civil defense can vary widely, Mannion says. He points out that even minor charges can cost up to $90,000 to defend.
Are medical payments included? Not usually, but a few policies do include medical payments. Hopkins’ policy for retired cops will make payouts of up to $10,000 for medical expenses.
Is there a vetting process? All self-defense policies require that the insured person legally possesses a gun. In some instances, stricter rules are in place.