Requiring gun owners to buy liability insurance fuels debate

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In a nation sharply divided over efforts to curb violence and the right to bear arms, both sides of the gun debate seem to agree on at least one thing: a bigger role for the insurance industry in a heavily armed society.

But just what that role should be and whether insurers will choose to accept it are very much in dispute.

Lawmakers in at least half a dozen states -- including California, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York and Pennsylvania -- have proposed legislation this year that would require gun owners to buy liability insurance, much as car owners are required to buy auto insurance. Doing so would give a financial incentive for safe behavior, they hope, as people with less-dangerous weapons or safety locks could qualify for lower rates.

"I believe that if we get the private sector and insurance companies involved in gun safety, we can help prevent a number of gun tragedies every year," said Massachusetts state Rep. David Linsky, a Democrat who wants to require gun owners to buy insurance. He believes that it will encourage more responsible behavior, and therefore reduce accidental shootings. "Insurance companies are very good at evaluating risk factors and setting their premiums appropriately," he said.

Groups representing gun owners oppose efforts to make insurance mandatory, arguing that law-abiding people should not be forced to buy insurance to exercise their constitutional right to bear arms. But some groups, including the National Rifle Association, endorse voluntary liability policies for their members. And as several states pass laws making it easier for people to carry concealed weapons and use them for self-defense, some gun groups are now selling policies to cover some of the legal costs stemming from self-defense shootings.

The U.S. Concealed Carry Association recently began selling what it calls Self-Defense Shield. "If you're forced to justifiably use your gun in self-defense," its website says, "Self-Defense Shield will help pay for your expert pro-2nd Amendment lawyer by reimbursing your legal-defense expenses following your acquittal -- an ingenious system critical to the arsenal of any responsibly armed citizen."

Premiums for such insurance range from around $200 to $300 per year; in general, the coverage is narrowly written and excludes cases where a gun is used to commit a crime.

Some specialized underwriters are reviewing what their policies cover in shootings, and weighing whether they should offer new types of coverage for gun owners. And as more states pass laws allowing people to bring guns to public venues -- including restaurants, bars, churches and workplace parking lots -- some business groups have expressed concern that they could be held liable for shootings on their properties, which could drive up their insurance costs.

On Thursday, when Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy outlined his proposals to reduce gun violence, he called for officials to study "whether owners of firearms should be required to carry additional insurance."

The insurance industry is wary of some proposals to require gun owners to buy liability coverage -- and particularly of bills, such as one filed in New York, that would require coverage for damages resulting not only from negligence, but also from "willful acts." Robert Hartwig, president of the Insurance Information Institute, said insurance generally covered accidents and unintentional acts, not intentional or illegal ones.

Some claims stemming from shootings have been covered by homeowners' insurance, even by policies that said they did not cover illegal acts. Families of the two students responsible for Colorado's 1999 Columbine High School killings were able to use money from their homeowners' policies to settle a lawsuit brought by most of the victims' families.

States have been considering mandatory gun insurance bills for years, but no state has passed one yet, said Jon Griffin, a policy associate at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

When Illinois considered a bill in 2009, the NRA wrote that it would "put firearms ownership out of reach for many law-abiding Illinoisans." The NRA endorses a policy that offers excess liability coverage -- "because accidents do happen, no matter how careful you are" -- and another that offers "self-defense insurance."



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