It’s been just over a month since the Newtown massacre and we’ve witnessed still more school shootings. President Obama has offered a vision of tackling gun violence, and Congress appears ready to at least go through the motions of trying to pass legislation in response to the flood of guns drowning this country and neighboring Mexico. In Massachusetts, however, lawmakers aren’t waiting around for Washington and have proposed their own agenda for tackling gun violence.
Could it be that health care reform provides us with the model for gun control reform and is Massachusetts going to once again lead the way? Early signs point to yes.
New York stepped forward almost immediately with a bold vision of state regulation of gun sales, mental health support and bans on certain weapons and accessories. But Massachusetts is offering something more: mandatory liability insurance for all gun owners, and it’s an idea worth considering. The policies would give those injured by a firearm some legal recourse — nothing to sneeze at when considering injuries from gun violence cost us millions in avoidable health care costs a year. Individual gun owners facing liability if their weapon causes an injury would have a financial incentive to make sure those weapons are protected.
Furthermore, the insurance industry is uniquely positioned to help bear some of the costs, both in terms of resources and human capital in implementing any reforms. Need a comprehensive screen for individuals who should not have the ability to purchase a firearm because of severe mental illness? The insurance industry already does those. In fact, just try getting a life insurance policy without one. Want to find a way to make purchasing a gun more difficult for some without taking away an individual’s right to own a weapon outright? Mandatory liability insurance would impact pricing on gun ownership in a similar fashion to health or auto insurance — a clean bill of health results in lower premiums and greater access to services and coverage.
Gun liability insurance has been floated before and is usually dismissed as ill-suited to address the horrors of Newtown, Aurora and Tuscon, let alone the daily violence in places like Chicago. And if taken in a copy-and-paste approach from automobile insurance it is. But that’s not exactly what is being suggested in Massachusetts, nor should past limitations in creativity prevent fresh eyes from coming at this issue again. Considering purchasing your first firearm? Take a firearms safety class and receive premium rated insurance coverage. Keep up on those classes and your premiums will continue to stay low. Want to own an assault rifle? Fine, but the liability insurance will cost you.
There are plenty of ways the analogy doesn’t fit. What about suicides which are a leading category of gun deaths? We don’t let life insurance proceeds go to the surviving estate of someone who commits suicide, presumably the same rules would apply. But if the suicide happened as part of other violence — whether a murder suicide or death-by-cop, those other acts of violence by necessity always happen first. There’s no reason those first-in-time claims shouldn’t be covered just because the perpetrator takes his or her own life as well.
And what about all those criminals who don’t register their guns and who would never buy insurance? Well, in that case we face a similar challenge as the auto industry where approximately one in seven drivers are uninsured. But unlike cars, guns serve only one purpose, and that is to kill. Why not set aside annually a percentage of premium collections for a fund that covers at least a portion of the costs related to uninsured gun violence? Some states already have similar regimes in place for uninsured motorists and while not a perfect solution, it’s a helluva lot better than what’s currently in place.
Which is the point. Massachusetts lawmakers deserve credit for considering this proposal, warts and all because doing something ANYTHING is better than what we’re currently doing to address the public health scourge that is gun violence.
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Photo from Mike Seachang via flickr.