How Would Insurers Stop Straw Purchases?

One of the main feeders into the pool of illegal guns that cause a large portion of the deaths and injuries is those guns that are obtained through straw purchases.  A straw purchase is one that is done by a person with a clean record that can pass a background check to obtain a gun for a prohibited person.  For the purposes of this writing straw purchases are distinguished from other channels for guns to enter dangerous hands including:

  • Unchecked sales or gifts after the initial purchase
  • Theft of guns
  • Previously owned guns by persons who subsequently become prohibited persons
  • Guns used by persons who are not prohibited from having guns but who are clearly dangerous in hindsight

Straw purchases are the primary input to the “Iron Pipeline” which is the name that New York gives to the practice of buying guns in low regulation states such as Virginia and illegally smuggling them into New York for sale to prohibited persons.  The hate killing by a white supremacist in Kansas City in April, 2014 was with a straw purchased weapon.

If compulsory gun insurance is to work to reduce the level of gun violence, it needs to reduce the number of guns in dangerous hands without being excessively a burden to gun ownership by the larger part of the public.  How can it do this?

Insurance will accomplish this because insurers will take measures in their pricing, sales decisions and policy terms to limit their exposure.  The insurance recommended here would compensate victims on the basis of their losses not liability of the gun owner and would continue to apply to a given gun until it is replaced by other insurance.  Because an insurer would still be on the hook after a gun is lost, stolen or illegally transferred, it would take steps to prevent that from happening.

Any gun can kill, but some guns are more likely to be involved in violence than others.  The distinctions can be obvious such as the difference between handguns and long guns or the relative safety of hunting rifles with limited ammunition capacity.  Insurers will take these differences into account in the same way that they take the model of car into account for pricing car insurance.  It is much more difficult for a government to make such distinctions as can be seen in the never ending debate over the definition of an “assault weapon.”  The difference between models may be in the convenience and effectiveness of a certain model for misuse or in the statistical makeup of the body of persons who chose that model.  In the case of cars, insurers take both into account.

In low risk situations, insurers are likely to simplify the process.  They would simply sell the insurance with insured people agreeing to do things like not transfer the gun to anyone without replacement insurance, to follow safe practices and to report loss or theft of the gun.  It’s likely that insurance will evolve in these cases to be a low cost rider on homeowners or renters insurance.  In some cases, it may even be at no additional cost as a way to get a highly desirable kind of insurance customer.

The higher the risk the more complex the insurers would make the process. Here are some things they might do in certain cases:

  • Require prepayment of a certain period of insurance
  • Assess high premiums or refuse insurance if cases of excessive risk
  • Give lower rates if the gun is stored at a range or hunting club
  • Require proof of the purchase or ownership of a gun safe
  • Require the owner of a lost or stolen gun to pay for reinsurance to cover future losses
  • Require the owner of a dangerous gun to periodically prove that the weapon was still in their possession
  • Require an agreement to surrender the gun to the insurer if certain situations such as the owner becoming a prohibited person arise
  • Require proof of financial responsibility for future insurance premiums
  • Investigate reported losses or thefts to make sure they are not being used as a cover for improper transfer and to recover weapons where possible
  • Require proof of compliance with any state or local firearms laws

The risk to an insurer of a customer turning out to have made a straw purchase for a person who cannot get insurance is substantial.  The insurer is likely to use policies such as those listed above to reduce that risk.  This will in turn reduce the risk to the public.

Insurers are also likely to work for the adoption of federal, state and local laws and regulations that will really improve gun safety.  They have been quite successful in this in the case of motor vehicles, funding safety research and lobbying for measures such as child car seats, use of seat belts and non-use of cell phones.

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