Mayors who experience such suffering in their communities after senseless gun violence do not have the luxury of waiting for Congress to act, as lawmakers offer their “thoughts and prayers.” Cities demand problem-solving over posturing. So this month, I proposed an oft-considered but as-yet-never-implemented idea: require every gun owner in the 10th-largest city in the United States to buy liability insurance.
Every U.S. state mandates that automobile drivers buy liability insurance; we should require no less of gun owners. Cars and guns have exacted a similarly grim human toll, each causing about 40,000 deaths in 2017. If San Jose’s gun owners can’t get liability insurance, they can comply with the mandate by paying a fee to compensate taxpayers for the “gun violence subsidy” borne by the public.
That is, for decades, taxpayers have subsidized gun ownership and the harms that accompany it. Direct costs of gun violence to California taxpayers — for ambulances, cops and emergency rooms — exceeded $1.4 billion last year, according to one study. While the Second Amendment protects a right to bear arms, it does not require taxpayers to subsidize the exercise of that right. Courts routinely uphold the imposition of reasonable, nonobstructive fees or taxes on constitutionally protected activities, such as forming a tax-exempt nonprofit, selling a newspaper and purchasing a gun.
Insurance can provide a useful mechanism for harm reduction. Risk-adjusted premiums provide financial incentives that reward good driving and installing air bags, and discourage parents from handing the keys to their risk-taking teenagers. Similarly, insurers could use premium discounts to prod law-abiding gun owners to take gun-safety courses, purchase gun safes and install child-safety locks — a welcome improvement for a nation in which more than 4.6 million children live in a household where a gun is kept loaded and unlocked. Insurers would also hike the premium on a 19-year-old looking to buy his first semiautomatic weapon, someone such as the Gilroy shooter.
Of course, “the crooks” won’t pay a fee or buy insurance; only law-abiding gun owners would. An insurance requirement at the point of sale, if purchased locally, would make it harder for some guns to get into the wrong hands. Regardless of where the gun is purchased, all San Jose residents would face an insurance requirement for merely possessing a gun — just as they would a car. The insurance thereby provides an additional tool for law enforcement against crooks. A prospective burglar casing a home or a criminal standing watch on a street corner may avoid arrest due to lack of demonstrable criminality. Yet, if a constitutionally compliant pat-down search revealed possession of an uninsured gun, the suspect would face the consequences of an uninsured motorist, including a fine, misdemeanor conviction and seizure of the gun.
What would the insurance cover? At the very least, we’d want to insure against the harm that results from accidental shootings, which claim the lives of about 500 people per year and cause more than 17,000 injuries, many of them to children. Some homeowners’ and renters’ policies already contain coverage for such liabilities. We might also consider requiring insurance — and thereby incentivizing insurers to offer coverage — for harms caused by those who acquire any of the 200,000 to 300,000 guns stolen every year from owners who inadequately secure them.
If some gun owners can’t get insurance, then our proposal simply requires them to pay an annual fee to compensate taxpayers who have grudgingly borne the financial costs of gun violence. Over time, with a sufficiently robust fee, more insurers will enter the market.
After two decades of congressional inaction and more than 600,000 firearm deaths, our sclerotic federal gun policy needs disruptive thinking. Local and state leaders increasingly will step into this void. Others may offer better ideas, and we should explore all of them; no one measure will end the scourge of firearm deaths in our nation.
In the meantime, I’ll push to implement a gun insurance requirement for San Jose residents. If we can’t decisively end gun violence, then at the very least, we’re going to stop paying for it.