Insuring 300,000,000 Existing Guns

If gun owners are mandated to have insurance, new guns can be monitored.  But what about the 300,000,000 guns currently held by individuals, including illegal guns?  Clearly, no system of insurance, gun regulation, or police activity can deal completely with problems arising from such massive numbers.   The system of chaining insurance responsibility “Top Down” works to retain guns in the system one there, and stolen or otherwise illegally acquired guns will retain the insurer of the last legal owner.  But the outstanding guns in the hands of criminals and a good proportion of those owned by otherwise law abiding owners will not be enrolled in insurance without good reason.

Although it might be assumed that political considerations will mean guns currently owned will be grandfathered in, that does not have to be the case.   Legislators could establish a policy whereby all guns must be insured.   When state or national laws are adopted to require insurance for guns sold by manufacturers or passing through the hands of legal gun dealers, the laws can require that persons owning guns acquire insurance.

In spite of declarations in the media from some gun proponents that they will not comply with various proposed measures regulating firearms, most gun owners are legal and responsible citizens and will comply with a requirement after a reasonable period of time.  They will be able to purchase insurance and have their gun’s serial number added to the database without revealing their names to anyone other than their insurer.  Much of the insurance now sold to gun owners is now provided to them in association with the NRA, and there is no reason that this cannot continue for those who have concerns about insurers protecting their privacy.  Of course, any insurer, even the NRA, would have to comply with financial regulation as an insurer and provide the mandated insurance compensations for victims.

The database suggested as a part of the “Top Down” system would provide a quick way for a law enforcement officer to check if a particular gun is insured.  The database is designed to provide a quick way to find the insurer responsible for a particular gun, but contains no information about the gun’s location or owner.  An officer finding the gun as part of an action for some investigation or arrest can check if the gun is properly covered.  Guns are routinely and legally declared when they are shipped in luggage on airlines and may have to be declared when brought into controlled places depending on local laws.  Insurance can be checked in these situations as well.

A plan for the existing firearms

Adopting a mandate for gun insurance does not need to unduly disrupt use and ownership of guns by current responsible owners. While all guns should be required to be covered to provide benefits, a reasonable period to come into compliance will be needed.  Because many of the owners who do not comply will do so out of inadvertence or for other relative innocent reasons, the penalties for non-compliance should not be severe.

Both for political and budgetary reasons, it can be assumed that authorities won’t be enforcing the insurance requirement with widespread searches for uninsured guns, but will take enforcement action only when a gun comes to their attention.

This blog is advocating that when a non-insured gun is discovered, the owner or other gun holder should be fined a reasonable amount; and, only in serious cases should be gun be seized by the enforcing authority. Perhaps, the gun should be seized temporarily until the owner secures the appropriate insurance policy and pays a storage fee.  The arguments below are to show that this should be sufficient to reduce the problem of existing guns to a reasonable size.  Of course, possession of guns by prohibited persons would be an entirely different matter.

Reasons to Enroll existing guns from the owners Viewpoint

There are several factors that will provide incentives for gun owners to voluntarily insure guns.

  1. The gun owner will want protection from liability concerning the gun, especially if the insurance requirement enhances that liability for illegal guns.
  2. Guns taken out of the gun owner’s home will be subject to discovery and enforcement.
  3. Guns will not be able to be sold or transferred legally without required insurance in place.
  4. Guns checked on aircraft or taken into ranges, hunting areas, gun shows or other monitored areas can be checked for insurance.

Liability for Uninsured Gun Owners

For gun owners who refuse to buy insurance there can be other consequences as well.  The insurance should be designed to provide protection for victims without the need to establish negligence by the gun owner.  This is not only important to provide for victims but is inherent in a system where the insurance responsibility is attached to the gun rather than to the gun owner.  The establishing legislation should provide that an uninsured owner has a liability for a gun owned that mirrors the responsibility of an insurer.  This means that the uninsured owner remains responsible if the gun is lost, stolen or transferred without becoming insured.  The responsibility remains in place until the serial number is placed in the database with a new insurer and then only applies to prior incidents.  This serious absolute liability exposure should be a strong motivation to otherwise responsible gun owners who are tempted to illegally forgo obtaining required coverage.

Financial Responsibility Laws

Prior to the adoption of compulsory gun insurance in most states, there were financial responsibility laws for drivers, who would lose driving or car registration privileges if they were involved in an accident with an unpaid claim.  These laws continue in many states for those who are involved in accidents but do not have the required insurance.  In a similar way, a person with an unpaid financial claim relating to an uninsured gun could be prohibited from possessing guns or holding permits as a protection for the public from a second incident.  Historically, financial responsibility laws were very powerful motivators for selling motor vehicle insurance in the time prior to its being mandated. At the time that New York State adopted an insurance mandate for cars, 80% of the drivers were already insured. 

Real Criminals

The reasons given above will be sufficient for a large majority of gun owners and will bring most of the existing guns promptly into an insurance system; but there still remains a body of people with overall criminal lifestyles who will not buy insurance no matter what motivation is provided.  One of the major reasons to require insurance that remains responsible when a gun moves into such hands is that insurers will be strongly motivated to prevent the move from happening.  They will look for ways that balance their customers’ demands for convenience and flexibility in the use of guns with the insurers needs to contain risk.  The insurers will require their customers to made careful checks about the proper transfer to a new insurer or their own approval if the same insurer is to remain responsible before selling or otherwise disposing of a gun.  They will insist on effective precautions against theft.  The measures taken by insurers to reduce risk will be a great impediment to the flow of guns from legal to illegal hands. 

Even if the flow of guns out of legal status into improper hands is greatly slowed, it will take some time to reduce the size of the pool of illegal guns.  Gun proponents point to the ATF’s average “time to crime” figure of 11.2 years and claim that guns take a good while to end their criminal careers in the hands of law enforcement.  This is too long because it includes the time that the gun was in legal hands before it was stolen or diverted.  A much shorter crime career average was found by the Washington Post in an article which found the average age of 250 guns sold by a single notorious gun shop and seized by Virginia police was less than a year.  At that rate the pool of illegal guns would drain very quickly to an equilibrium based on how many thefts and diversions are allowed by the policies adopted by the insurers.  These guns would be insured.

Illegal Imports and Clandestine Manufacture

Another possible source of uninsured guns is illegal sources including manufacture and smuggling.  Fortunately, there is little evidence of illegal gun manufacture in the US.  While it seems to be possible to make a complete pistol with a 3D printer, the results are crude compared to real factory manufactured weapons.  Purchase of parts kits for homebuilt assault weapons with lower receivers (the part with the serial number) made from unregulated 80% complete castings or forgings are more of a problem and should be regulated in the future.  If the efforts of insurers make it more difficult for prohibited persons to illegally obtain guns prices for illegal guns are likely to rise, but imports and clandestine manufacture will still have to compete with stolen guns.  Newly stolen guns will be insured.

A more difficult gun smuggling problem will be likely if only some states adopt an insurance plan.  The current serious problem of illegal guns flowing from states with little or no regulation to states attempting to regulate guns will apply as well to insured guns.  The problem of illegal guns in America will require a national solution for more than a very limited success.  This will be true whether the approach is by insurance as advocated by this blog or by direct governmental regulation.  If insurance is mandated on a national level but is implemented by the states, then it would be of considerable help if benefits were determined by the levels in effect in the state where an incident occurs rather than in the state where the insurance is purchased.  This should apply both while the guns is in the hands of the legal owner and to insurer responsibility after a gun illegally changes hands and travels to another state.

A Hopeful Precedent from Australia

After a tragic incident at Hobart, Tasmania where xx persons were killed by a gunman.  The Australian Government passed a law basically outlawing several classes of guns.  A buyback program was in place for a limited time and approximately one-third of the guns covered were removed from circulation.  In spite of the remaining body of guns which were made illegal, the rate of homicide dropped in half and the rate of gun suicide dropped by an even larger factor.  It appears that while illegal guns in the hands of prohibited persons are very dangerous to the general public, illegal guns in the hands of the general population are kept well-hidden and out of trouble.  If the results of an insurance mandate in the US work out the same way, a gap in coverage because some guns are not brought into compliance will not result in a great number of uninsured deaths and injuries.

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