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Can gun liability insurance make our neighborhoods safer?

San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo has proposed introducing a gun insurance requirement for all gun owners except police, less than a month after a mass shooting in Gilroy, California. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)
San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo has proposed introducing a gun insurance requirement for all gun owners except police, less than a month after a mass shooting in Gilroy, California. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

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The nation’s first gun insurance mandate took effect this year in San Jose, California.

Gun owners in the city are required to have liability insurance or they could be fined a minimum of $250.

But can insurance actually help curb gun violence?

“Insurance in and of itself is never going to cover the kinds of violent events that people imagine it would because insurance can’t cover things that you do on purpose,” R.J. Lehmann says.

Today, On Point: What role does insurance play in the fight against gun violence? And could it do more?

Guests

Mayor Sam Liccardo, former mayor of San Jose, California. He championed the city’s first in the nation ordinance requiring gun owners to have gun liability insurance. The insurance mandate took effect Jan. 1st. (@sliccardo)

Jennifer Mascia, senior news writer and a founding staffer at The Trace, which is a newsroom dedicated to covering gun violence. Read their article: Will Requiring Gun Owners to Buy Insurance Improve Firearm Safety? (@JenniferMascia)

R.J. Lehmann, editor-in-chief and senior fellow of the International Center for Law and Economics. Read their article: Nation’s First Gun-Insurance Mandates Take Effect. Will They Hold up in Court? (@raylehmann)

Interview Highlights

What are the requirements in the San Jose ordinance that you find most interesting but perhaps unrealistic?

R.J. Lehmann: “Relative to some of the other proposals that are out there, including the New Jersey law. The San Jose law, it’s not necessarily unrealistic. Most people do have liability insurance, either through a homeowner’s or renter’s policy. There are some renters, obviously, who don’t get renters insurance. The standalone firearms liability insurance, it has existed. It does exist to a small extent. The most significant product that offered something like that was actually offered through the NRA.

“And it’s somewhat ironic because in some of the same states that are currently looking to require insurance. New York, New Jersey, Washington state, they all actually litigated to basically sue that NRA product out of existence on the argument that it covered criminal acts, which is debatable. But I will leave that aside.

“The San Jose law does only require coverage for accidents as your other guest mentioned, if you had a first party accident, you know, members of a household, that would not be covered. Just as if, you know, your dog bites you. You can’t make a homeowner’s insurance claim. If your dog bites a guest, they might have a liability claim against you.”

On shootings covered under insurance policy 

Jennifer Mascia: “When we looked into this, we found that San Jose had actually only had about three unintentional shooting deaths in the last seven years. Those numbers are national numbers. And San Jose is a sliver. And the shootings, that the unintentional shootings, the few that have happened in the last seven years, I looked into it, they all resulted in criminal charges, and they would not be covered under this policy. This policy does not cover anything that results in criminal charges.

“And a lot of people don’t realize when you use a gun, even if it’s in self-defense, a lot of times there will be a prosecution, even if you’re deemed justified at the end of this, law enforcement does tend to get involved. And if that happens, this policy would not cover them. So, yes, these are unintentional shootings. And not only that, under this law, you know, you can’t cover, say, a child finding a gun and accidentally shooting themselves or somebody else.

“These are the unintentional shootings that are especially tragic and that bring a lot of attention to this issue. Those are the things that a lot of gun safety advocates want to prevent. But you need to be a third party in order to get that covered. So somebody’s visiting your home. Those would qualify. And that is a sliver of a sliver of these accidental shootings. So that’s even fewer that this policy would cover.”

On creating a market for insurers to reduce gun violence

Jennifer Mascia: “People are really thinking outside the box when it comes to these things because the traditional paths to legislation aren’t really viable, especially federally. So, you know, you have this policy where it’s trying to encourage, I think, a cultural shift and what you need for that, for it to be really, really effective on the insurance level is widespread adoption. And I think that’s what they’re hoping. New Jersey recently passed a law also about insurance. We’ll get to that later. But, you know, I think that, you know, it takes one.

“And they’re hoping that this will catch on. The problem is it’s only going to catch on in states that are run by, you know, Democrats, progressives. We’re seeing, you know, there’s states where gun laws are getting really stronger, in states where they’re getting weaker. And the gun law states that are strong right now, they’re more apt to try these policies the way it would be really effective. When I spoke to insurance experts is that widespread adoption with insurers, actually saying, you know, it’s worth, you know, delving into this market.

“Otherwise they just don’t see the point. I looked, I called insurance companies. They said that they’re not going to be recalculating rates. Just like when you get a car, you call the insurance company, they give you a rate. The insurance companies are not, from what I understood reporting last year, going to be involved in that way. As a matter of fact, there’s no requirement under this ordinance that you even call the insurance company and give them the serial number of your gun. For instance, like you’d call an insurance company and give them the VIN number of your car. That’s not a requirement. So a lot of the things that would make a successful insurance market here are missing.”

On a history of auto insurance

R.J. Lehmann: “In the very recent past, we’re talking into the 1980s and 1990s, typically, an insurance company would offer a standard auto insurance policy for a regular driver. They might also offer a preferred policy for somebody who went many years without making a claim. Then if you got a moving violation, a ticket, you might move into a higher risk. And if you got two or more, you likely couldn’t get a standard auto insurance policy at all. You would get assigned risk. And it was really in the ’80s, the introduction of really advanced computer models and looking at where someone lives.

“Yes, age and gender were factors. And they are to some extent, what kind of work they do, what their credit history is, that insurance companies discovered all sorts of correlations that allowed them to create rates that were particular to a person. We don’t know any of that yet about firearms liability. It is possible that, you know, your credit score might be predictive of whether or not you’re going to have a gun accident. But we don’t know that, and we can’t guarantee that it’s true. Lots of things that we might think are correlated or might wish to be correlated, it turns out, are not. And that takes quite a bit of investment to actually find those correlations.”

On the role insurers can play in reducing gun violence

Jennifer Mascia: “The insurance industry being what it is right now, Not exactly. I mean, for the reasons that you mentioned, you know, unintentional shootings are, while tragic, and a lot of the time, you know, they do involve children. They’re just not ripe for insurance in this area. And the thing that they’re really trying to encourage is a cultural shift toward gun responsibility.

“Even the awareness that’s been generated by these stories, you know, even reporters digging in, finding out that it’s not all that it’s advertised. Believe it or not, you know, those stories have raised awareness of this entire issue. I think that is really what city officials hoped for. You need awareness to shift something.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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