I write this as my home town of Chicago passes a grim milestone: 500 shooting deaths. Although the national attention on handgun violence may have averted from the horrific slaughter in Newtown, Connecticut, it's still a daily curse in most cities.
But we can't be bamboozled into thinking nothing can be done. Plenty can be accomplished and we should dedicate ourselves to finding some remedies. Gun liability insurance is one approach.
First of all, the esteemed British business journal The Economist has endorsed the concept, which I first wrote about nearly a year ago. Here's a summary of their appraisal of the idea:
"It's an idea that seems to be gathering a bit of steam. At Forbes.com, John Wasik lays out the logic behind treating firearm deaths as a market externality to be compensated via insurance, as we do with cars (here they quote me): "Those most at risk to commit a gun crime would be known to the actuaries doing the research for insurers... An 80-year-old married woman in Fort Lauderdale would get a great rate. A 20-year-old in inner-city Chicago wouldn’t be able to afford it.
A 32-year-old man with a record of drunk driving and domestic violence would have a similar problem." Robert Cyran and Reynolds Holding write that mandatory liability insurance is a measure that could pass Supreme Court muster where other restrictions might fail: "[T]here’s a strong argument that damage caused by firearms gives the government a 'compelling interest' to require insurance, the test for infringing a constitutional right."
Also urging more discussion on the proposal was the conservative National Review online:
"One concern is that this proposal might make firearms prohibitively expensive for certain kinds of people, e.g., men under the age of 35. Over time, underwriting would presumably grow more sophisticated, thus protecting the interests of responsible gun owners. Regardless, Wasik’s idea merits further discussion."
In the interim, I've presented the proposal to a room full of lawyers; both of my senators, including top Democrat Dick Durbin (D-IL); my congressional representative (Joe Walsh, at the moment); my state representative; Ill. Gov. Pat Quinn; Ill. Attorney General Lisa Madigan; the League of Women Voters; the leadership of the House Progressive caucus and people in my political network.
While I think that insurance is one route among many -- and it's certainly an imperfect approach -- my aim is to start a national discussion to see if it's possible.
I think we should use markets to price the risk without butting up against the 2nd amendment. There are no prohibitions or confiscations involved. A tax would pay for administration and recordkeeping. And the insurance companies would price the risk according to age, personal history, location and other factors. The process would be fully privatized.
In talking to people across the country and viewing comments on this blog, here are some legitimate questions and possible directions to take:
* Okay, so you make people buy liability insurance. What about the gangbangers and criminals who obtain the guns illegally?
This will still be a problem, but since the purchaser and seller must buy the insurance, it may cut down on "straw" sales. A tax on sales would also pay for better administration and tracking.
* There is no federal regulation of insurance, so what do you want Congress to do?
Congress still has the power to tax. It can tax every transaction and fund better enforcement of existing gun laws and weapons/ammunition tracking. If we can put in microchips to track dogs -- my pooch has one -- we can certainly do this with guns and ammo to make them traceable. The current laws are full of loopholes that need to be closed. I would surmise that if liability legislation gains any traction, it will have to happen on the state level. State insurance departments and industry lobbyists would then need to get behind it. There's also tens of billions of dollars of premium and renewal income associated with this approach, so it's in their best interests to pursue.
* But aren't you prohibiting the sale of weapons and won't that result in a 2nd amendment challenge?
Not necessarily. Like insuring any other form of property -- cars, homes, jewelry -- you can buy as many guns as you want. No restrictions. You'll just need to insure them. There are plenty of legal precedents. Most states require that you have vehicle insurance. Most mortgage sellers mandate that you have homeowner's insurance. You need dram shop insurance for a liquor license. You need all sorts of liability insurance to sell stepladders and run businessses. Why not require the same approach for guns, which pose plenty of social and economic liability?