Liability Insurance for Guns Skips a Step—You Need Liability First

A picture taken on January 12, 2013 in Sarrazac, shows a car destroyed after striking a regional train in a crossing. Three passengers of the car have been killed in the accident and a fourth was heavily injured.

Photo by PASCAL PERROUIN/AFP/Getty Images

One idea that has been bandied about in the gun control debate is to create liability insurance for gun owners, using a similar system as car insurance. The line of thought is, if insurance covers damages done by their vehicles, why not damages inflicted by guns too?

Economist Russ Roberts, for example, says liability insurance would lead prospective gun owners to weigh the full cost of their purchase:

When a person purchases a gun, she may not consider the possible harm that might come to others from the eventual use of the gun. Adding the cost of insurance might make the purchaser bear the full cost of the gun in the future, which could easily exceed the purchase itself. After all, registering a car requires insurance on the grounds that cars can cause involuntary harm to others. The insurance forces the driver to bear those costs that might come to pass that are borne by others in an accident.

But what are we insuring against, exactly? The premise of liability insurance is that there’s underlying liability. Drivers often get into wrecks that injure other drivers or damage their vehicles. That leads to lawsuits and liability insurance. With guns, however, we’re talking about damage done by third parties. To push the analogy, as Loyola law professor Blaine LeCesne told the Times-Picayune it’s hard to imagine a court that would prosecute every car owner whose stolen vehicle ended up doing damage. So how would courts treat liability for gun owners?

The question is whether the gun owner could have reasonably foreseen that the weapon could accidently harm someone if left unsecured. It’s similar to leaving a gun lying around in the open. “It’s more likely or more foreseeable that that kind of action could happen,” LeCesne said.

The solution we should be looking at, then, isn’t liability insurance but civil liability laws themselves. Unless you make gun owners liable for harm done with their weapons by third parties, the whole question of insurance wouldn’t make a difference.