With 80 million gun owners in the U.S., insurance companies would eagerly tap a new market, providing an essential layer of scrutiny not only when the policy is issued but also with each annual renewal. Once spread across the whole pool of gun owners, risks are likely quite low. Policies could recognize the distinctions among different types of guns and how owners routinely use them. A man who proudly hangs his great-grandfather’s Civil War rifle over the fireplace is a minimal risk compared to one who routinely carries his Glock in public. Their policies can reflect the difference.
More nimble than government regulations, the free market could swiftly and accurately assess the risk of new weapon designs – and deny coverage if it’s riskier than the market will bear. In the fifty years since imposition of auto insurance mandates, insurance companies have proven to be powerful advocates for safer auto design and better driver training. As a result, lives were saved. It’s time to add their voice to this issue.
Beyond gun design, insurers could assess individual gun owners. Much like health assessments performed before issuing a life insurance policy, mental health screenings could flag those at high risk of instability. Insurers would also require proof of adequate training and determine whether a home is equipped for safe storage. A bad risk could be denied insurance. A moderate risk would pay higher rates – creating an incentive to get more training, divest of a few riskier weapons, or install better storage systems.
The scrutiny should extend to anyone using the gun. Want to take your son to the shooting range? He’d have to pass the mental health screen first, be added to the policy as a “learner,” and pass a test before being fully licensed and insured. This is what we expect for our other most-deadly weapon, our cars. It makes sense to extend it to guns.
This system also requires prospective gun owners to appropriately prepare for responsible ownership. As with any liability insurance, intentional acts wouldn’t be covered and those caught lying about the guns they own or how they use them would lose coverage. Lapsed policies could be reported to the state for follow up investigation to ensure a gun hasn’t fallen into the wrong hands. Owning guns without insurance should be a felony, punishable with the loss of Second Amendment rights, much like felons lose their right to vote.
Many gun owners might object to the price tag, but the cost is far below what the victims at Sandy Hook, Aurora, or Virginia Tech paid. As an added benefit, insurance companies could pay a percentage of profits from this lucrative new product line into a public fund for mental health treatment. As a result, society would gain multiple benefits from one policy – more thorough screening than we’d ever accept from government, swift adaptation to an ever-evolving market, accurate risk assessments, and more money for our woefully underfunded mental health systems.
Before arguing it’s unconstitutional, consider that another fundamental right – freedom from warrantless search and seizure – does not exist at airports even though freedom of movement is also a fundamental right. Merely by exercising your right to travel and stepping through the airport’s door, you consent to a warrantless search and the Fourth Amendment does not protect you from the pat down.
Much like the right to travel, you have a right to own a gun. But by choosing to exercise your Second Amendment rights, you must also consent to the necessary risk assessments that will help protect society from irresponsible or mentally unstable gun owners.
All of our rights are limited by society’s need for order and to protect health, safety, and welfare. In the wake of D.C. v. Heller, we recognize the right to own a gun. But the terrorism at Sandy Hook compels us to set reasonable limits. The power of the free market can help us decide who is too risky to exercise that right. It is past time to let the invisible hand pull a few strings.
Dunlap taught high school for twelve years and in 2006 earned National Board Certification in adolescent social studies. She is also a James Madison Fellow (1995), a distinction earned by fewer than 2,000 U.S. teachers. She is now an attorney in private practice. The views expressed here are solely her own.