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Should gun owners be required to buy liability insurance?

The recent tragedy in Newtown, Conn., has spurred calls for new legislation regulating gun ownership. Now, some people are urging Congress to pass a federal law that would require gun owners to buy liability insurance.

Supporters of this proposed mandate– including writers John Wasik, Robert Cyran and Reynolds Holding, and economists Nouriel Roubini and Robert Frank – say money from insurance claims could go toward compensating victims of gun violence. (Note: Congress has given no indication that it will consider the idea.)

In addition, some advocates argue the law would help curb gun violence. For example, gun owners might be more careful with their weapons, knowing they’d be on the hook for paying a large deductible in the face of a claim. Or they may use gun locks and other safety devices if doing so secured a homeowner’s insurance discount.

Gun experts react

Joshua Horwitz, executive director at the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, is intrigued by the idea of gun owner liability insurance. Currently, most of the costs of gun-related violence are borne by entities such as public hospitals or the victims of gun violence themselves, he says. gun_liability_insurance

Having an insurance policy tied to gun ownership “would be a better way to allocate the risk and make funds available for victims and survivors,” Horwitz says.

But he thinks several factors could complicate the issue. For starters, he says, enforcing a law at the federal level would be difficult.

“It seems more right for state discussion, since insurance is regulated at the state level,” he says.

Legislation being considered by state lawmakers in Massachusetts would require gun owners to buy liability insurance. This proposal is part of a broader bill aimed at reducing gun violence. If this legislation passes, Massachusetts would become the first state to require gun liability insurance.

Craig Baenziger, who sells guns and ammunition in Massachusetts, told The Associated Press that requiring liability insurance for guns makes little sense because it targets people who buy the weapons legally instead of going after criminals who illegally have them.

“Insurance on your gun isn’t really going to decrease crime or accidents. Nobody shoots their friend on purpose. It’s not going to do anything,” Baenziger told the AP. “It’s just a way to increase revenue for the state.”

Amid the debate over gun liability insurance, Horwitz wonders whether insurers would cover events tied to “intentional acts” of violence, such as a school shooting or a suicide. In many homeowner’s and car insurance policies, intentional acts – such as purposely setting your house on fire – are not covered.

In that case, gun ownership insurance potentially would exclude coverage in the case of an intentional act. “The question is: Can you create a remedy thorough insurance that goes beyond the merely accidental?” Horwitz says.

The National Rifle Association (NRA), the country’s largest supporter of gun rights, did not respond to several requests from for its position on mandatory gun liability insurance. The NRA does offer excess liability insurance to its members. Such coverage protects members for liability judgments of up to $250,000 that stem from any injuries a member unintentionally causes while hunting or trapping on public or private land.

Doomed to fail?

Robert Passmore, senior director of personal lines at the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America trade group, says a marriage between guns and insurance is nothing new. “The vast majority of legal gun owners already have some insurance coverage,” he says.

He notes that homeowner’s policies generally cover firearms as personal property and reimburse damage to or loss of a weapon.

In addition, the liability coverage portion of a homeowner’s policy or an extra umbrella insurance policy protects a gun owner from damages incurred from accidentally injuring or killing someone else. In most cases, such liability coverage would be voided if the gun owner intentionally tried to harm the victim, although Passmore notes there are exceptions when self-defense is involved.

Passmore says the idea of mandatory gun owner insurance has been floated after other tragedies, such as the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado that killed 12 people. But the push for such legislation never has gained traction.

Passmore says his group opposes insurance mandates “because they are not being shown to work.” As an example, he points out that nearly every state requires drivers to buy car insurance.

“Look at the number of uninsured drivers on road,” he says. “In some states, it’s around 25 percent.”

In addition, he thinks it would be difficult for insurers to accurately gauge the risks presented by gun ownership. Auto insurance risk is easier to assess because the data associated with car wrecks is more extensive and detailed than data on gun violence.

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