D.C. Council considers gun insurance requirement

March 5, 2013

District gun owners would be required to buy at least $250,000 in liability insurance under a bill being considered by the D.C. Council.

The proposal — akin to requirements that vehicle owners carry insurance — would mandate that owners of all registered guns carry policies that “cover any damages resulting from negligent acts or willful acts that are not taken in self-defense.”

Insurance companies would charge for policies based on a gun owner’s perceived risk.

“It’s a dangerous instrumentality, so you have to be careful how you use it,” council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), who sponsored the legislation, said Tuesday. “If you are not careful and you hurt somebody, you should have insurance to compensate them.”

Cheh proposed the legislation, which could come up for consideration later this year, during a council meeting where members also agreed to slow city efforts to reduce benefits for long-term welfare recipients.

In other votes, the council toughened penalties on establishments that serve alcohol to minors and sustained Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s veto of a bill that sought to overhaul a city system that gives preferences to small and local businesses in District contracts.

Members opened the session by introducing about a dozen bills, including the gun legislation.

In the aftermath of the school massacre in Newtown, Conn., similar proposals requiring liability insurance have been introduced in at least six states, including California, New York and Maryland, Cheh said, citing a New York Times report. In the District, the proposed requirement would complement existing gun laws, which are among the nation’s toughest.

After the Supreme Court struck down a decades-old ban on owning a handgun in the District in 2008, the council approved regulations that allow residents to register certain handguns as long as they are not taken out of residents’ homes. D.C. police said that about 3,100 firearms, excluding those owned by law enforcement officials, are registered under that law.

Cheh’s legislation calls for registered gun owners, except law enforcement officials, to obtain insurance within 30 days of the bill becoming law. The city would revoke the permits of gun owners who do not get insurance.

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) seemed skeptical of Cheh’s proposal, saying the council should not create unnecessary burdens on gun owners.

“We don’t want to make it hard for the law-abiding,” Mendelson said, adding that the District should avoid battles with the courts or Congress over the issue. “If the insurance costs $20 a year, that’s probably not a burden, but if it costs $200 or $1,000 a year, that makes it harder to justify.”

Meanwhile, council members overwhelmingly agreed with Gray (D) that the city should delay by six months its plans to reduce benefits to welfare recipients who have been on the rolls at least five years.

Under a plan adopted in 2010, the city was supposed to trim benefits for long-term recipients by 25 percent in April to help persuade them to transition out of the program. But the Department of Human Services asked for the delay, saying it needed more time to assess the 6,500 recipients who would be affected.

Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) noted that many of those long-term recipients, whose benefits were already reduced by 20 percent in 2011, receive about $300 a month in assistance for a family of three.

“How many of you could live on $15 a day?” Barry asked his colleagues. “I challenge all of you, how would you do it? It’s virtually impossible, but I guess you could eat bean soup.”

But several council members expressed concern about the delay, arguing that the administration has been slow to implement a law designed to conform the city program to the 1996 federal welfare reform law.

In response to allegations that some carry-out stores continue to sell alcohol to minors, the council also approved legislation that gives the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration more authority to fine or suspend the licenses of establishments that violate the law.

Despite an effort by council member Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large) to override the mayor, the council also sustained Gray’s veto of a bill that would have set new guidelines for the city’s Certified Business Enterprise (CBE) program.

Although he agrees that the CBE system needs reform, Gray argued that the legislation would be too complicated and costly for local businesses.

Tim Craig is The Post’s bureau chief in Pakistan. He has also covered conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and within the District of Columbia government.
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