We Already Have a Way to Cut Gun Deaths...

In a recent column responding to the shootings in Newtown Connecticut, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof asked, "Why can't we regulate guns as seriously as we do cars?" Kristof didn't follow up on that question, but it's something I've been thinking about for a long time.

In a recent column responding to the shootings in Newtown Connecticut, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof asked, "Why can't we regulate guns as seriously as we do cars?" Kristof didn'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 was never first string, but I got taken along to a couple of matches to fill out the team, and I still have my medals in a box somewhere. I didn't hunt, but I had friends and relatives who did.

Coincidentally, it turns out that the 1950's were also the time when states were beginning to adopt laws requiring automobile drivers to be licensed, and to purchase liability insurance protecting people and property injured or damaged in accidents. Mandatory liability coverage is now a long-established fact in all but three states, and those - Virginia, New Hampshire, and Mississippi - have alternative methods of enforcing driver responsibility.

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 the use and ownership of cars?

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 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 don't unduly discourage car ownership and use. There's no reason the same logic wouldn't apply to firearm insurance. (Just for the record, I do not now nor have I ever had any connection to the insurance industry.)

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 might not be required, but applicants would have to pass a firearms safety test before getting a license to "operate" one.

  • 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 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, perhaps even free, during the first few years the system goes into effect - or for guns currently owned.

  • Possession and use of firearms would require liability insurance. Just as for motor vehicles, the cost of insurance should reflect the skill and "driving" record of the user, as well as the type and dangerousness 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.

  • Insurance rates would 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.

That's fine for responsible gun owners. What about those who use their guns recklessly, or in crimes?

  • Liability coverage could be supplemented by a surety bond. For people who deliberately use guns recklessly, or in crimes, insurance could be seen as unduly protecting them from the consequences of their bad behavior. If a bond were also required, the surety company would be responsible for paying injured parties, but would have the right to demand reimbursement from the owner - and would, of course, do so. While this would not deter career criminals, it would at least address some crimes of impulse - barroom fights, for example, and the irresponsible behaviors that lead to some hunting accidents.

  • Carrying a gun while intoxicated would be treated the same way we treat driving while intoxicated. This change alone would almost certainly result in immediate and substantial reductions in gun injuries and deaths. Violators would face immediate restraint and detention and, when necessary, suspension of "carrying" privileges. They should also face the likelihood of increased insurance premiums.

None of this is intended to, or could, replace legal penalties for criminal use of firearms. However, it would offer law enforcement significant new tools for prevention. If all legal guns are licensed and traceable, from the point of manufacture or importation to the end user, legitimate gun owners will be more likely to store their firearms in a safe manner, and to report guns that are lost or stolen. Individuals found with unlicensed firearms in their possession, or without a user's license, could be disarmed and checked for criminal records.

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 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 essau said, "While I'm not a constitutional scholar, the phrase "well regulated" in the Second Amendment has to mean something."

A longer version of this article is available on the author's blog.

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