Push to require firearm insurance eases as critics compare measure to Obamacare

Various automatic handguns are shown in the weapons vault during a media open house at the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) National Laboratory Center in Beltsville, Maryland June 18, 2013.
GARY CAMERON | Reuters
Various automatic handguns are shown in the weapons vault during a media open house at the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) National Laboratory Center in Beltsville, Maryland June 18, 2013.
Posted Nov. 20, 2013, at 7 a.m.

Plans to mandate liability coverage for U.S. gun owners after last year’s school shooting in Connecticut have languished as opponents attack the proposals by comparing them to President Barack Obama’s health overhaul.

Lawmakers in Illinois voted down a measure that would have required $1 million of insurance more than 2-to-1. Similar proposals were excluded from gun control bills that passed in California and Connecticut.

Maryland State Sen. Jamie Raskin, a Democrat, said he withdrew his firearms liability bill because of a lack of support.

“Society is not yet ready to impose the cost of gun ownership on owners and manufacturers,” Raskin said. “That would require a dramatic shift in public understanding and political dialogue.”

The failed efforts in states that voted for Obama, a gun control advocate, is partly the result of opposition from the insurance industry, which is seeking to avoid claims tied to policyholders’ crimes. Opponents of the liability measures also have cited frustration with the federal mandate that people have health coverage next year or pay a fine.

“I don’t believe it’s going to gain any traction, particularly in light of the fact that we’ve got, at this juncture, a fiasco with Obamacare being mandatory,” said Alan Gottlieb, founder of the Second Amendment Foundation, a Bellevue, Wash.-based gun rights group. “I don’t think legislators want to get near any kind of mandatory insurance.”

Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., introduced a bill in March that would prohibit the sale of firearms to uninsured people. She called her proposal a “market-based approach” and likened it to car coverage, which is required by states and is more costly for those deemed by underwriters to pose the greatest risk. Her proposal hasn’t been brought for a House vote.

Illinois state Rep. Michael Bost, a Republican, opposed the insurance bill and said supporters of the mandate from Chicago were mistakenly blaming the city’s violence on guns, rather than on criminals. Asked about parallels between the firearms proposal and Obama’s health policies, Bost said both are “too much government in my life.”

A mandate for gun buyers could be more challenging than for drivers, given insurers’ aversion to the risk from assaults. That compares with U.S. auto insurance, where companies spend more than $5 billion a year to win customers in a $178 billion market.

“That’s why things like mandatory auto insurance kind of work, because you’ve already got a highly functional market and it’s a matter of herding the last stragglers into it,” Walter Olson, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, a think tank dedicated to limited government, said in an interview. “But when there is no functional insurance market at all for some kind of risk, it’s a different question.”

Florida state Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Republican, introduced a bill this month that would prohibit insurers from underwriting a policy or refusing to provide coverage based on an applicant’s ownership of a legal firearm.

Most carriers don’t ask clients if they own a firearm, said Neil Alldredge, senior vice president for state and policy affairs at the National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies. One way a home insurer might find out is if a customer requested extra protection to guard a gun collection against theft, Alldredge said.

Costs from accidental discharges may already be covered by a gun owner’s health insurance or property coverage, he said. The state proposals would make insurers liable for additional expenses, he said.

The cost of U.S. gun violence was as much as $174 billion in 2010, according to an analysis by the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, an organization that conducts studies tied to public health. The estimate accounted for lost work, medical care, criminal justice expenses, and pain and suffering.

“We oppose proposals that would mandate gun liability insurance, as property casualty insurance does not and cannot cover intentional criminal behavior,” Willem Rijksen, a spokesman for the American Insurance Association, said in an emailed statement.

Gun control efforts accelerated after Adam Lanza killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook elementary in Newtown, Conn., in December. A California effort to mandate insurance faltered while other restrictions advanced, including a bill signed last month by Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown that places tighter limits on gun storage.

Maryland now requires that gun buyers get fingerprinted, and Connecticut added requirements for background checks in private gun sales.

“Last year was our big year, and I think we got a tremendous amount done,” Maryland’s Raskin said. The insurance proposal was more than colleagues were prepared for, given the industry’s opposition, he said.

“It’s likely this won’t come back again until, God forbid, the next huge round of spectacular gun violence and we summon the momentum to act again,” Raskin said.

 

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