Changing the rhetoric from gun control to gun insurance


Jonathan Schwartz, a salesman at the National Armory gun store, helps Reese Magnant as he looks to buy a National Armory AR-15 Battle Entry Assault Rifle on January 16, 2013 in Pompano Beach, Florida.


Joe Raedle

President Barack Obama vowed to use all the power of his office to prevent tragedies like the Sandy Hook massacre from ever happening again. On Wednesday, he made good on that promise. The president issued 23 executive orders that intensify execution of existing law and create new policies while calling on Congress to ban semiautomatic weapons, require universal criminal background checks and outlaw high-capacity magazines.

On the same day, the National Rifle Association released a television ad that called Obama an "elitist hypocrite." Obama likes armed security guards in the school where his two daughters attend class, it said, but he doesn't like armed security guards in schools where everyone else's children attend class. The White House wasn't alone in calling the advertisement "cowardly" and dishonest, but that's unlikely to stop the NRA, and the Congressional Republicans who fear the lobbying group, from doing everything in their power to stop new gun regulation.

For this reason, it might be useful to explore an idea that until recently hasn't gotten the attention it deserves from Democrats and gun-control advocacy groups, and it's an idea that might hit the NRA where it hurts: the Second Amendment.

The idea is mandating the purchase of liability insurance for every gun just as every car (in one way or another) is supposed to be indemnified against accident, theft and other risks. By requiring that gun owners and gun sellers insure themselves and their guns, Congress would be invoking a part of the Second Amendment that the NRA downplays — with great freedom comes great responsibility.

Ironically, the NRA itself is showing us the way.

The organization offers something it calls "excess personal liability" insurance to its members. This protects against liability lawsuits up to $250,000 for accidents that happen while hunting and shooting. The NRA provides these plans because, as its website wisely observes, "accidents do happen no matter how careful you are."

That the NRA offers liability insurance suggests that the organization, despite perceptions to the contrary, is of two minds when it comes to constitutional freedoms. Americans have the right to bear arms but they also have to right to personal safety, and in the event that one right infringes on the other (if, say, someone is accidentally shot while deer hunting), Americans have the right to demand compensation for the infringement.

Automobile insurance works on the same political principle. The benefits of owning a car are private but the potential detriments are public. By setting aside funds in a private or public account, the car owner takes responsibility for the potential risks that she has no way of foreseeing but that are inherent to the ownership of a vehicle. The difference between gun and car insurance, however, is the latter is so much a part of ordinary life that no one remembers the underlying principle.

Here are two more differences. One, everyone understands the risk of owning a car, but there is no such consensus when it comes to the risk of owning a gun. In fact, the risks are frighteningly high, especially for children. The Children's Defense Fund found that 90,000 kids died from gunfire between 1979 and 2001.

Two, everyone understands that risk is determined by a car owner's age, sex, physical condition, medical history, the kind of car she wants to insure and other criteria, but there are no such criteria when it comes to firearms. Whether an 18th century musket loader or a Bushmaster .223 rifle, it's all the same, because no one is being held responsible for the cost of the risk. Yet the NRA itself acknowledges the potential risk of gun ownership. After all, it says, "accidents do happen."

Insurance for gun owners and gun sellers could achieve multiple ends. First, it would harness the power of free enterprise to reduce gun violence. With minimal government involvement, gun insurance could solve the problem of access, which is more pressing than the kind of gun being bought or sold, by focusing on the risk of firearms and their potential cost to society at large.

It might go something like this. If you are young, male and want to buy a military-style semiautomatic rifle for target practice, then you pay a lot. If you have a criminal record, you are denied coverage and therefore denied the ability to buy a gun. If you are a senior citizen, female, never had a speeding ticket and want to buy a revolver for self-defense, then you pay less.

Policyholders, moreover, would have an incentive to reduce their premiums by taking safety courses, buying less lethal weapons, buying safer guns (with trigger locks), etc. In any case, the emphasis wouldn't be on gun rights anymore but on personal responsibility. Personal responsibility is a mantra among conservatives and if conservatives thought about it, they'd see it was a central concept of the Second Amendment.

As Andrew Meyer, professor of history at Brooklyn College, wrote in proposing a gun-insurance mandate: "The Second Amendment guarantees that gun ownership is a right, not a universal actuality on the terms most convenient to those desiring weapons. If the Second Amendment allows that every citizen may be compelled to pay the fair market value of a weapon, it also allows that each gun owner may contribute toward private funds mitigating the social costs of gun use."

In other words, with great freedom comes great responsibility.

Democrats are taking a risk in focusing most of their energy on a so-called assault weapons ban. A better use of their energies might be a focus on gun insurance, which would lead to all the things they want on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines without alienating conservatives whose support they need.

A focus on gun insurance and personal responsibility might force the NRA to act against its own positions, against the Second Amendment and against the larger principles of conservatism.

John Stoehr teaches writing at Yale. His essays and journalism have appeared in The American Prospect, Reuters Opinion, the Guardian, and Dissent, among other publications. . Stoehr. He blogs about politics for the New Statesman and The Washington Spectator, and he's a frequent contributor to Al Jazeera English. A longer version of this commentary was published previously by Mint Press. Follow Stoehr on twitter @johnastoehr