Americans are increasingly convinced that there is no middle ground on gun regulation. This binary thinking is one of the NRA’s greatest accomplishments, fueling gun-buying paranoia on one side and undirected outrage on the other. In realty there are many potential measures that could trim our death toll from guns, and no need to wait for the federal government to take action. One of the most promising solutions has been hiding at your local DMV.
First, a few realities. Guns are a deeply embedded cultural artifact in the US. Nothing we do at any level of government is going to end mass gun ownership anytime soon. Further, any bold innovation is impossible at the federal level. Our federal government is broken beyond any near-term fix. On this and many other matters, it would be wise to rediscover the power of states.
One of the most serious flaws in our system of gun ownership is the way it assigns costs. Mass, unregulated private gun ownership creates enormous secondary costs. Our system shields gun owners, dealers and manufacturers from financial responsibility for this decentralized system, instead spreading the cost of mass ownership scattershot across our society. Placing the financial burden of our gun culture where it belongs would go a long way toward reducing harm.
As with so many other seemingly intractable American policy problems, a simple solution already exists. Automobiles are an incredibly lethal product, but not nearly as dangerous as in the past. Our long drive toward road safety was fueled by state regulations that “priced-in” risks, requiring owners to shoulder the financial burden of auto injuries. The system we use for managing cars offers a template for safer gun ownership.
Mandatory driver licensing and insurance assigns the cost of injuries to drivers, incentivizing auto owners and insurers to embrace safer practices. Automobile deaths are in long-term decline, a decline so steep that almost as many Americans now die from gun injuries as from auto accidents. In per capita terms, our most dangerous years on the road were prior to World War II. Our rate of road deaths has dropped almost two-thirds since the sixties. Using regulation to create a market for auto safety led to safer cars and safer drivers. Markets work.
Designing a market for gun safety begins with an exercise in priorities. What problems are we looking to solve? What behaviors do we want to incentivize or punish? If we assume that the 2nd Amendment and public opinion will require us to live with mass gun ownership, what would a safer version of this system look like? Where could we achieve the most improvement at the least cost?
Here are some of the problems a regulation scheme would need to address:
– It is absurdly easy for criminals to obtain a gun. Despite a thicket of convoluted and confusing rules at all levels of government, we lack any effective means to tie a particular weapon to a particular chain of custody. This is not a technically challenging problem. We have simply lacked the political will to adopt a solution.
– Most of our gun deaths, including those caused by criminals, begin with casual gun owners with no training, no awareness of gun safety, and often little real interest in ownership. How many readers of this piece have a gun gathering dust in a closet that they haven’t laid eyes on in years? Those guns are often carelessly stored, lost or stolen, resulting in injuries down the line.
– Every year about 1300 children are killed and 7,000 injured by firearms. A large number of those cases are unintentional. About 17,000 Americans are accidentally injured by a gun each year. In many instances the injuries are caused by children. Every year more Americans are killed by toddlers who accessed a weapon than by terrorists. Too many weapons are in the hands of people who do not exercise proper care.
– Because our tracking and reporting systems are so poor, it is easy for criminals to leverage “straw purchasers” to obtain weapons, sometimes in large quantities. These domestic gun runners are rarely caught, and almost never successfully prosecuted.
– We have no method to identify lunatics who are assembling a massive arsenal. Similarly, we have no way to identify and “price-in” behavior identified as precursors to gun injuries, like domestic violence or mental illness.
With those problems in mind, we should recognize a bright spot. Concealed carry holders in states with stringent training requirements (about 13 states) are relatively safe gun owners. They are still involved in more gun injuries, including accidents, than non-owners, but they are far less likely to be involved in an incident than our mass of casual owners. Our experience with concealed carry demonstrates that training and registration can dramatically lower rates of gun injury while protecting the rights of responsible gun owners.
Considering these characteristics of our system, what kind of state-level regulatory scheme would create the best incentives and costs?
Mandatory registration and licensing are a starting point for any effective system. We have done this for automobiles, and thanks to concealed carry legislation many states already have the skeleton of such a system for guns. As with cars, gun owners would take a class, pass a test, clear a background check, and renew their license consistently.
All sales of firearms would be tracked and registered, just as we do with automobiles. Most importantly, as with cars, owners would have to maintain financial responsibility for damages through insurance. Owners would be liable for any injury rising from their firearm. If the weapon was stolen, there would be a reporting requirement, perhaps 7 days. Gun owners would be financially responsible for the protection and use of their weapon(s). Possession or sale of a weapon to a buyer lacking insurance would be a serious crime.
The shape of that insurance would be important, since guns have some unique characteristics. Insurance would be based on strict liability, attached to the weapon. A mandatory policy would cover losses regardless of cause or intent, up to the policy maximum, probably $500,000 per injured party. The insurer’s liability would rise for intentional injuries, perhaps 4x, but still be capped. In other words, the policy would pay for any injury caused by the insured weapon, regardless who pulled a trigger or in what circumstances, up to the policy limits. As with many auto insurance schemes, an injured party could win a judgment against the responsible owner beyond policy limits in certain cases involving intent or gross negligence.
Strict liability with firm policy limits is necessary because most of the damage from firearms is from intentional acts. Coverage under these conditions is necessary, but it means that insurers can cap their losses. They still have incentives to assign costs based on the relative safety of each weapon and owner, but they won’t be wiped out by one gun owner who goes nuts. This structure means that costs for a trained, registered owner of one or two hunting rifles, stored in a safe, would be low, perhaps a few dollars a year.
Meanwhile ownership of numerous weapons by casual owners with no training or safety measures would become entirely impractical. Irresponsible or erratic owners would be priced out of the market for guns. When someone wants to buy fifteen weapons, they will find it difficult if not impossible to obtain insurance coverage. A potential buyer with a sudden decline in their credit rating, an arrest, or a restraining order, would lose their ability to carry a weapon.
What impact could we expect if one state, perhaps Illinois, adopted this system?
First, a lot of casual gun owners would prefer to relinquish their weapons rather than take a class and obtain insurance. For someone with a genuine interest in shooting, the class, registration and insurance requirements are minimal. For the mass of barely interested owners with old guns in their closet, the burden of responsible ownership probably wouldn’t be worthwhile. This is extremely important, as America’s enormous pool of unsecured and untracked weapons is a major source of firepower for criminals and a cause of many accidents.
The overwhelming majority of America’s committed and trained firearms owners would be unaffected. Someone who owns a pistol or two, holds a concealed carry license based on Illinois’ present standards, and stores their weapon(s) in a safe, would obtain insurance for a few dollars and go on as before. Safe, responsible gun owners are a relatively minor source of our annual gun injuries. This system would protect their rights.
By contrast, what would happen if someone under 25 tried to buy an AR-15? If you have a teenager, perhaps you’re aware of the cost of their auto insurance. It is likely that no insurer would offer a policy for young shooters on anything other than simple hunting or target weapons.
Some might be concerned that the market would simply go underground. For starters, an underground market is easier for law enforcement to target and address than a market with virtually no enforceable rules – our present case. Critics often complain that only responsible gun owners are impacted by regulations while criminals go free. They should explain why so few crimes are committed by criminals wielding hand grenades. We have a tight regulatory scheme allowing powerful, full-automatic machine guns to be bought and sold. Why do those weapons almost never show up at crime-scenes? Those weapons are simply too difficult for criminals to obtain.
What if our buyer crossed the street from the South Side of Chicago into Indiana? That’s how most of the guns used in crimes in Illinois reach the state today. This avenue would remain open, but with far more restrictions and enforcement options than we have today. Prosecutors are constrained in shutting down these kinds of sales. A scheme of this type would let them pursue both buyers and sellers with a simple, easy to prove and enforce regulatory scheme.
Private gun sales would actually become safer and easier, since mandatory background checks and related assessments would shift to the insurers rather than the individual buyers/sellers. A seller would have to check a potential buyer’s qualifications by contacting their insurer. Anyone who skipped this step could be criminally liable for trafficking, a major improvement over current law. Once a single large state adopted this system it would likely spread.
Why haven’t we adopted a system like this already? The only real loser in this scheme is the gun industry. Their most important industry PAC, the NRA, has fought any and every move to improve gun safety. Their opposition to safety regulation comes down to money.
Cars are necessary, offering a vast range of safe, valuable uses. As a consequence, people are willing to shoulder the burden of training, safety measures, and financial responsibility. Guns are mostly useless outside of hunting or crime. Once buyers have to assume the costs of responsible ownership in time and money, the market will shrink rapidly. The gun industry will fight this scheme with every ounce of its energy, because it would destroy most manufacturers and dealers.
Licensing and insurance would not eliminate gun deaths overnight. In fact, as long as we remain a nation with millions of weapons in private circulation, we will have higher rates of gun deaths than nations without this cultural artifact. If some detail of this system is impractical or ineffective, a state could simply change it. We shouldn’t wait for a perfect solution.
Most importantly, we shouldn’t wait for the federal government. States could adopt an insurance scheme immediately, on their own initiative. In the future, the most successful state systems might become a model for federal regulation. Our federal government is likely to remain gridlocked and ineffective for the foreseeable future. Those who care about practical solutions to public policy should rediscover the power of states and take action now.