A Smart Way to Control Guns: Force Owners to Buy Insurance for Them

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Want to limit the number of firearms in this country? Or better yet, would you just like to make sure the people who do own them are responsible, careful individuals? Then have I got a policy proposal for you: make gun buyers purchase liability insurance for their weapons.

That clever idea has been buzzing around the internet for the past few days, picking up endorsements from New York University economist Nouriel RoubiniThe Economist, and Robert Cyran and Reynolds Holding at Reuters Breaking Views, among others. The thinking is that insurance would make gun ownership more expensive and a hassle, which would discourage some people from buying weapons, or at least from acquiring huge arsenals. But it would make gun ownership particularly expensive for those who are most likely to get caught up in some sort of violence. So lifetime hunters with spotless criminal histories would get a great rate -- The Economist notes that National Rifle Association members can already buy $100,000 worth of gun liability coverage for as low as $165. A jobless 19-year-old male with a disorderly conduct arrest on their record, on the other hand, would have to pay a whole lot more than they could afford. 

Forbes contributor John Wasik argues that the idea should be taken a step further by making gun owners liable for any accidents or violent crimes committed with a weapon they own, even if they weren't directly involved. So if you don't keep your gun under lock and key, and somebody gets a hold of it and commits a crime, you'd be on the hook. 

This wouldn't be a cure-all. Many, many people would obviously still pay a premium to own a high-caliber hunting weapon or a handgun. Many people would still get their weapons illegally. But at the very least, it might help rectify a serious market failure, which is that the costs of firearms ownership are born by society more than actual gun owners. It's been a banner year for guns and ammo sales, and the gun industry is expected to make about $11.7 billion. Yet by one credible estimate, gun violence cost the United States as much as $174 billion in 2010 alone, once you factored in the lost work, medical care, criminal justice resources, and other expenses. Forcing gun owners to cover some of that price via insurance -- or at least making them compensate victims -- would help restore balance to the market. 

One of the biggest questions hanging over this proposal, as you might have guessed, is whether it's constitutional. The Supreme Court could easily conclude that making it prohibitively expensive to own a gun amounts to infringing on the 2nd Amendment. The question, then, is where you draw the line. Is requiring any insurance an excessive burden? Or can the government attach a certain reasonable price to exercising a constitutional right? And if so, how much is too much? 

Cyran and Holding suggest that "tying the price of coverage to the cost of gun incidents" might help an insurance requirement pass constitutional muster, by proving that the government had a legally relevant "compelling interest" in the issue. I can't say one way or the other. But there's no reason an enterprising, gun-control friendly state like New York couldn't provide a test case some time in the near future. 

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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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