As lawmakers cast around for ways to curb gun-related violence, some are hoping the insurance market might offer incentives.
A bill filed on Jan. 18 in Massachusetts would require gun owners to purchase liability insurance in the event that a firearm is used to injure.
The insurance policies would give those injured by a weapon a legal recourse, backers of the bill say, but they also would create financial incentives that could reduce accidents and fatalities. Gun owners, for example, might see lower insurance rates if they agreed to take firearms training courses and properly stored their weapons.
“Insurance companies were able to discourage smoking through the marketplace and make cars safer through the marketplace,” said state Rep. David Linsky, the bill’s sponsor.
And insurers have more leeway than law enforcement in some cases, he said.
Massachusetts already has gun storage laws, but police cannot come into a person’s home without a warrant, Linsky pointed out. An insurance company, however, would be able to verify that there is proper gun storage before writing a policy.
Officials at the National Conference of State Legislatures say to their knowledge no state has adopted a gun insurance requirement.
The idea is already meeting with resistance for gun rights advocates, who say it amounts to more regulation aimed at law-abiding gun-owners.
“Now we’re going to have insurance companies telling us how we are supposed to be trained and where we are going to store our guns?” said Jim Wallace, executive director of the Gun Owners Action League in Massachusetts.
Craig Baenziger, who works at a gun- and ammunition-seller in North Attleboro, Mass., called Northeast Trading Co., said requiring liability insurance for guns makes little sense because it targets people who buy the weapons legally instead of going after criminals who illegally possess them.
“Insurance on your gun isn’t really going to decrease crime or accidents. Nobody shoots their friend on purpose. It’s not going to do anything,” Baenziger said. “It’s just a way to increase revenue for the state.”
But supporters say requiring liability insurance could cut down on accidents, because gun owners who store their weapons safely would pay less for their insurance. It could also curb the flow of illegal guns because insurance policies would reward owners who secure weapons against theft.
Other recent gun control proposals being pushed in the wake of the shootings at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., have focused more directly on banning the sale or possession of certain weapons.
President Barack Obama is pushing a series of steps including requiring background checks on all gun sales, reinstating the ban on guns classified as assault weapons and renewing a 10-round limit on the size of ammunition magazines.
Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick has also proposed a series of tougher gun control measures, including limiting gun owners to purchasing no more than one gun a month and tightening access to certain types of ammunition.
Obama, Patrick and others have also said more attention needs to be paid to the role mental illness plays in gun violence.
Supporters of gun insurance say their proposal would simply require gun owner be insured and then let the market work out the details. They compare their idea to the requirement in some states that a car-owner buy insurance before being allowed to register a vehicle.
“You don’t have to own a gun,” Linsky said. “You don’t have to drive a car.”
Under the bill proposed in Massachusetts, there would be specific penalties for anyone found in possession of a gun without insurance. The fines would range from $500 to $5,000 or up to a year in jail.
Linsky said he purposely left vague the details about what level of insurance would be required or whether existing homeowner’s insurance policies that cover guns in the home would suffice.
The proposal is catching the attention of gun control activists, including Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, co-chairman of the group Mayors Against Illegal Guns.
“It’s a very creative idea,” Menino said. “(He’s) trying to put some teeth into what we are doing.”
U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, also called the proposal creative.
“It’s time that we think about alternative ways that we can effectively deal with gun violence,” the Massachusetts Democrat said. “We need better research. We need better understanding. We need to try different approaches to protect our children.”
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