Congress appears ready to take up gun control legislation for the first time in years, with proposals under consideration focusing on background checks, straw purchases and money for school safety.
If the debate stays on those issues, the insurance industry will be mostly on the sidelines but if any bills requiring that gun owners carry liability insurance start to move, the industry’s lobbyists can be expected to spring into action.
The industry is warning lawmakers against requiring gun owners to carry an insurance coverage that they may not be able to easily purchase.
The Senate is going first on gun legislation. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada promised he would schedule a a vote this week. On Thursday morning, the Senate voted 68 to 31 to open debate on the gun bills.
One gun insurance bill has been filed in the House. Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, D-N.Y., has filed the Firearms Risk Protection Act of 2013 (HR 1369), which would require gun owners to purchase liability coverage and to show proof of that coverage when they purchase a firearm.
Maloney says her bill would introduce a market-based solution to holding gun owners liable for the weapons they own.
“As with car insurance premiums, higher risk gun owners will face higher premiums. Actuarial determinations will be made by insurance companies, as those experts are in the best position to make those determinations based on sound data analysis,” she says.
Maloney says her bill does not establish a federal insurance program. Instead, it imposes no specific requirements on insurance companies, but instead imposes a fine of $10,000 if during the sale of a weapon the seller does not confirm coverage or the buyer has not purchased it.
Wherever these proposals surface, insurers have been telling lawmakers that such approaches would not only violate basic insurance principles but also be unworkable.
“Though well intentioned, such proposals misunderstand a fundamental principle of insurance—that it is designed to cover fortuitous, or accidental events; not intentional conduct. Property/casualty insurance does not and cannot cover intentional behavior such as criminal acts,” said Willem O. Rijksen, vice president of public affairs for the American Insurance Association.
According to Jimi Grande, senior vice president of federal and political affairs for the National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies, gun liability insurance measures would neither deter violence nor help victims.
“Liability coverage is designed to protect against accidental damages, most of which involving guns would be covered under a homeowner’s insurance policy. While some policies may provide coverage for liability stemming from the intentional use of a firearm for defensive purposes, no liability insurance product covers intentional acts of malicious violence, whether committed with a gun, a car, or any other instrument that is used as a weapon to deliberately harm people,” said Grande. “It is inconceivable that any insurer would offer such coverage, either as part of a homeowners or renters policy or on a stand-alone basis.”
Grande also said any effort to add an insurance requirement to gun ownership “will be met with strong challenges as a violation of the Second Amendment.”
The National Rifle Association (NRA) opposes requiring liability insurance for gun owners because it says such a requirement economically discriminate against gun owners.
“You don’t have to carry insurance to exercise any other constitutional right,” NRA spokeswoman Stephanie Samford told Reuters.
Overall, liability is less of an issue for the gun industry than it can be for some others. The Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA), which was signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2005, protects gun manufacturers and dealers against most civil lawsuits. They can still be held liable for damages caused by defective products, criminal misconduct, or other actions where they are directly responsible.
Some gun control advocates would like to change that. Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., a former federal prosecutor, has introduced legislation to roll back the PLCAA. Schiff’s bill, The Equal Access to Justice for Victims of Gun Violence Act (HR 332), would limit the immunity for gun manufacturers and gun distributors granted under the 2005 law.
“Good companies don’t need special protection from the law,” says Schiff. “Bad companies don’t deserve it.”
Supporters of gun control appear to have an uphill battle in Washington even after the Newtown, Conn. shooting, polls suggesting the American public is on their side, and a campaign for “common sense” gun legislation by President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden.
The only federal gun measures approved by Congress since the Newtown tragedy have been government funding riders that actually relax rather than tighten gun laws. One protects gun shops suspected of criminal sales, another blocks the government from requiring gun sellers to report an inventory to help law enforcement find lost or stolen weapons, and another broadens the definition of antique guns and ammunition that may be imported into the U.S.
The Senate is currently trying to advance a package that includes universal background checks on gun purchasers, increased funds for school security grants and tougher penalties on gun traffickers and straw purchasers.
The Senate proposals do not include any insurance requirements or changes in the immunity laws governing gun makers and dealers.
The initial focus is on the Senate because leaders in the House, where Republicans hold the majority, have said they will act only if the Senate does so first.
Thirteen Republican senators had threatened to filibuster all gun control legislation, meaning any bill would need a Senate supermajority of 60 votes to pass— a level of support most observers contend is unlikely. However, it now appears that the fillibuster may not happen after all.
Meanwhile, a number of states are considering laws that would prohibit their law enforcement from enforcing any new federal restrictions on gun ownership and use. These states include Idaho, Louisiana, Texas, Kentucky, Ohio, Kansas, Arizona, Michigan and Washington.
Supporters of gun control have argued that new gun laws will help curb gun violence and that federal laws are necessary to provide additional protection and uniformity across states.
But opponents have argued that such federal laws are unconstitutional and ineffective. They have opposed universal background checks as a violation of gun owners’ rights and argued that such laws do not deter criminals.
The president has taken his plea for gun control outside Washington to Colorado and Connecticut, sites of recent gun massacres.
Gun control supporters, including a group called Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, have been trying to compete with the political muscle of the NRA and other gun rights advocacy groups.