Could You Arm Yourself with Gun Liability Coverage?
Firearm safety advocates promote gun liability insurance as a solution to lower the number of mass shootings. The idea is that requiring gun owners to buy insurance might discourage them from owning large numbers of firearms and encourage gun owners to store their weapons safely.
The concept has gained support in recent years, with supporters saying it’s a no-brainer that’s less divisive than the gun control debate. But insurers say it’s not as simple as it sounds.
Bill Scheurer is responsible for launching the #treatgunslikecars movement. Scheurer is startup adviser to the American Gun Safety Association and executive director of the nonprofit On Earth Peace, and he developed the idea after the February 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., in which 17 students and staff members were killed and 17 others injured.
The idea is to apply the rationale of the driver’s licensing, registration and insurance systems and apply it to gun ownership. “The federal government isn’t particularly good with this kind of regulation and management (for guns), whereas if you compare what we have with motor vehicles, every state in the nation has a very sophisticated code. And all of law enforcement has access to information on drivers.”
Scheuruer envisions that state and federal agencies would be able to see each other’s records. So if a Louisiana gun owner gets arrested in Missouri, Missouri law enforcement would be able to access Louisiana registration and insurance records.
“There’s a very sophisticated, well-developed system that creates a culture of accountability and sets standards of behavior,” Scheurer says. “Rather than saying no one can drive an 18-wheeler because those are unsafe, you establish licensing requirements that are different from driving a passenger vehicle.”
Scheurer acknowledges that the system is not perfect, but automobile regulation provides a lot of parallels that gun regulators could draw from.
“It’s not a 1-for-1 match,” he says. “But the concept of licensing, registration and insurance is a direct systemic match.”
Given that lawmakers have been sharply divided on gun control measures, Scheurer believes gun liability insurance could be a nonpartisan solution to the gun violence epidemic.
“There are two directional problems with the gun control movement,” Scheurer says. “It doesn’t balance legitimate concerns from those who feel the need for guns with the concerns of those who feel at risk from guns.
Second, the movement focuses on federal measures, instead of steps that can be taken on the state level and in the private sector.”
Gun use not easy to insure
Members of the insurance industry say that from a coverage standpoint, treating guns like cars is a little trickier than it sounds. The problem with proposed mandates for gun liability insurance is that they often require coverage for willful or intentional acts, explains Chris Hackett, senior director of personal lines for the American Property Casualty Insurance Association.
“Basically, the bill would require coverage for a shooting spree or series of criminal acts. An insurance policy is not designed to cover intentional criminal acts like that,” Hackett says.
Insurance mandates don’t always work, either. Hackett points out that most states mandate that drivers maintain minimum automobile insurance liability coverage. Yet there are states that have a large percentage of the population that still does not maintain this coverage. “We don’t think that mandate has been particularly effective at achieving its goal,” Hackett says.
These kinds of insurance mandates are also difficult to enforce because of the administrative burden these mandates would create for officials charged with monitoring gun ownership. “If the state legislature passed a bill requiring all gun owners to maintain liability insurance, how would they go about verifying that?” Hackett asks.
There are some insurance options that are already available to gun owners.
Personal firearms liability insurance policies are available, but mostly through membership in a firearms association. The coverage protects gun owners if they are charged with a crime after using a firearm for self-defense.
Insurers, however, rarely offer gun liability coverage. Homeowner’s and renter’s insurance policies generally offer gun owners some liability protection — but only in the event of an accident, such as a hunting mishap or a misfire when someone is cleaning a gun. The same holds true for self-defense claims. Some insurance companies even allow you to insure your gun collection for its full value under your homeowner’s policy. But many policies explicitly claim that they will not cover intentional acts.
It’s worth noting that it’s unlikely owning a gun will increase your homeowner’s insurance rates. Guns are not looked at with the same level of scrutiny as a pool or trampoline,” Hackett says.
What's the future of gun liability insurance
State and federal lawmakers have made several attempts to mandate the purchase of gun liability insurance. To date, none of this legislation has passed.
Scheurer believes there could come a day when gun liability coverage becomes widely available – but probably not right away. Based on anecdotes, he estimates more than three-fourths of the people he talks to are in favor of such an insurance system that would treat guns like cars. But he recognizes that people are too sharply divided for the system to work in the current climate. “You’re dealing with highly motivated individuals on both extremes,” he says.
Just like you wouldn’t receive an insurance payout for intentionally drowning someone in your swimming pool, Hackett says wanton acts like shooting sprees will likely never be covered under an insurance policy.
“It would be against sound public policy to have an insurance product that would cover criminal acts such as murders,” he says.
Interestingly, Scheurer says, cars experienced a similar backlash to guns when automobiles first hit the streets. “It was like a Wild-West free zone,” he says. “Then the public started addressing safety and civilized, cultural norms for these new vehicles that were scaring horses off the road.”
At this point, gun liability insurance is too much of a niche product to gain broad support among insurers, Scheurer says. But he doesn’t think things will be that way forever.
“(Insurers) make their living from the incremental profits from managing risk. And nobody manages risk at all in the firearms area,” he says. “If it were a legit, well-regulated system, they’d come in with data and price it accordingly.”