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How States Can Reduce Gun Deaths

How States Can Reduce Gun Deaths

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.

More: Ten Lies Distort The Gun Control Debate


  1. This issue of guns and other issues that plague America today is so much worse because of the polarization. Years ago when we had the liberal Republicans largely from the NE (AKA Rockefeller R’s) and the conservative Democrats largely from the SE, over a period of time Congress was generally able to compromise. The nation was able to move ahead. Many of the policies were blends of Republican and Democratic policies. Nevertheless, they generally worked. The Interstate Highway system is a prime example of that. Regardless, problems were discussed and attempts to resolve them were implemented. Maybe, not as efficiently as could be, but we made progress. Now we have total gridlock, with no resolution and an overall tendency for all wealth to migrate to the top, as Piketty described so well in Capital.

  2. Coincidently, this article on shooting costs and schools buying insurance. I’ve seen articles asking why gun manufacturers and organizations that support them help pay for these costs. Sort of like the Superfund that we have for cleaning up old mining and manufacturing sites. I believe we ask present day companies to help pay these costs even if they were not directly responsible for them.

  3. Here’s my own proposal, and the nice thing is it leverages our control of Hollywood and doesn’t rely on the federal government: make ownership of firearms a sign of weakness rather than a sign of strength. Forget politics. Change the cultural implications of gun ownership, and you’ll see a massive drop in guns.

    Every statistic out there shows, without any doubt, that buying a gun makes you less safe. Even in a gun nut’s wet dream scenario of being stopped in a dark alley by a (inevitably black) robber. Statistics show brandishing a gun escalates the situation and puts you in far greater danger of dying than if you didn’t have a gun to begin with.

    And yet every Hollywood portrait of gun owners is some variation of John Wayne. A citizen who, by the power of the gun in his hand, becomes a hero. We need to change this narrative, and tell the far more accurate story: that the idiot who brings a gun to a knife fight markedly escalates the risk of everyone (including himself) dying.

    I’ve known a few gun collectors (not antiques), and their fascination with the latest models / accessories / etc is bizarrely similar to a little girl’s fascination with her Barbies. Their fanboy fetishizing of everything gun-related is more breathless than any comic book geek. And who aspires to become a comic book geek? Turn gun ownership into a cultural symbol of weakness and anti-manliness and this can all stop.

    I don’t think this is as hard as it sounds. It’s been done before. For example, 30 years ago, getting blindingly drunk and driving home was something “real men” did all the time. No one told a hard-drinking man’s man that he couldn’t operate a stupid car. Only effete limp-wristed boys who can’t handle their liquor couldn’t drive home after pounding shots all night. It took Mothers Against Drunk Driving to change the cultural narrative that driving drunk was not manly. In fact, it was cowardly and stupid. Only after the culture change did laws get passed. Now, drunk driving is a massive social taboo, such that even beer companies sponsor designated-driver campaigns.

    What if the message Hollywood put out was that real men don’t need guns to protect their family? That only insecure weaklings who are routinely dominated by alpha men in their daily life need a gun to compensate for their own masculine failings?

    We can do our own part: when you see someone with a gun or someone talk about their guns, ridicule them (if they’re your friends, tease them gently :-). Shame is a powerful weapon. If you recoil in horror as they talk about their new purchase, you’re reinforcing their idea that guns make them powerful and fearsome. if you recite stats about how many people are killed by guns you’re counter-intuitively making them more attractive. Instead, ask them if they’re going to buy a dress to have enough room to conceal that new AR-15. Offer to give them your overweight cousin’s muumuu.

    It’s a long process but changing the culture is the only way to effect lasting change. The laws only follow.

    Or, if we want change quickly, let’s start a fund to offer free guns and sniper training to every young black man that wants it. The time to new gun control measures being passed will be measured on a stopwatch rather than a calendar 🙂

    1. The “every black man will be armed” thing went away when the Black Panthers exercised their right to be armed. Right now, if a Black person is seen with a gun in his possession, they are perceived to be intent on harming someone. Most black people I’ve talked with said it’s a risk they can’t afford in open society.

  4. You’ve outlined your plan several times and overall it’s a good plan, but politics is about horse trading. You have to give up something to get something. Even in blue states where the NRA doesn’t hold sway, getting something major like this passed will require gun owners to see *some* benefit come their way in exchange for having to pay for insurance they don’t need now.

    In this way, gun insurance is different than the drive to make car insurance mandatory. First off, most everyone drives, and almost everyone has been involved in a car accident at some point in their lives. So while it may suck that you now have to carry insurance, the benefit is that if/when someone hits *you*, it’s much more likely that they’ll have the means to pay for damages. Despite this obvious advantage (and no lobbying against by car manufacturers or really any other vested interest), it was still a big fight to mandate care insurance.

    With guns, you’re not liable for damages *right now* if your gun is used in a crime (unless you’re the one firing it). You’re not required to register them, or do anything else. Imagine if you could drive, and not be liable for any damages if you are in an accident. What benefit do you gain by buying insurance? And on the other end, most people, including most gun owners, don’t expect to ever be shot. Therefore, the fact that insurance makes it much easier to collect damages if it happens, is of minimal to no benefit to them.

    The concealed carry movement is a great template: by offering a real, tangible benefit (the ability to legally carry concealed weapons), they’ve gotten the biggest gun nuts to enthusiastically agree to registration and training requirements far more stringent than most plans proposed by “gun control” advocates.

    It’s been so successful that even as an ardent gun control advocate, I’m starting to see that supporting concealed carry movements may be the best way of bringing in much-needed gun control measures and reducing gun violence. That is the nature of politics, one that most gun control advocates fail to realize: arguments based on “doing the right thing” are political nonstarters. There has to be something in it for everyone.

    So why should gun owners, or gun rights advocates, support your insurance proposal, which essentially creates a new liability they don’t currently have, while giving them no new rights / benefits they don’t already have?

    1. I agree with this “The concealed carry movement is a great template: by offering a real, tangible benefit (the ability to legally carry concealed weapons), they’ve gotten the biggest gun nuts to enthusiastically agree to registration and training requirements far more stringent than most plans proposed by “gun control” advocates.”

      The problem is that some states have loosened gun laws including requirements for their concealed carry. In those states, that bargaining chip has been given away.

      I get the feeling that acknowledging of the specialness of some gun owners would go a long way. If you get my drift. Although, I’m not sure that change can’t happen without “horse trading” some privileges. I did joke with someone that we could give free fast pass tickets for Disney World to gun owners. But polls say most people want common sense gun laws, we just need them to vote. Vote in midterms, and in local elections.

      1. Yeah, and this is very frustrating way of grabbing defeat from the jaws of victory that Democrats are experts at.

        When you know that concealed carry is going to pass, then join hands and demand something in exchange for your votes. Republicans, even if they think they can pass it themselves, will often give something in exchange for easier passage. Dems could have easily argued for tighter controls. Instead, thanks to the binary thinking that Chris mentioned, they stand against it, losing not only the larger concealed carry debate, but the opportunity to get something from it.

        It’s also what happened when the original assault weapons ban expired. Realizing they didn’t have the votes to re-authorize it, they should have started negotiating a year in advance that they won’t push for reauthorization in exchange for some registration requirements. Or even something relatively small like better funding for the ATF to make the current registration laws more effective. Instead, they carried on a hopeless battle to re-authorize the ban, in order to appease their constituents. And in the end, the ban expired, and nothing was obtained anyway.

  5. Chris, a lovely, well-thought article.
    Too bad you wasted all that thought and talent on something that will not change.

    Gun violence is part of the U.S., until a dictator takes over and sends out the army to remove weapons, which of course, is the logic for having weapons in the first place.

  6. Unfortunately, the NRA’s death-grip on the public narrative will ensure an idea like this won’t happen any time soon. How many legislators will have the courage to implement such a scheme against an onslaught of angry phone calls from people who believe any attempt at regulation is the first step toward confiscation? Not enough to get a law passed, I’d wager.

    The NRA is the immediate problem here. As mentioned in the article, they have made the gun violence problem intractable for their own benefit. Any plan to reduce gun violence needs to start with marginalizing the NRA and its message.

    1. Actually, no. The NRA has very little swing in places like New York, Illinois and California. The problem in many solidly blue states is that Democrats aren’t good at formulating policy. Hate to say it, but they suck. Every time they try to do something sensible, it falls apart at that stage in the process when every conceivable interest group gets their turn to muck with it. We won’t pass this plan to improve housing access unless it includes provisions necessary to address inequities in treatment of Latinx transgendered vegans.

      Contributing to the problem is the dynamic described in this piece:

      As a simple consequence of scale, it’s cheaper to buy a state legislator than a Congressman. State legislatures usually find little time to address any material issues other passing a budget and legislating weird crap to stir up a political base – mostly abortion-posturing in red states and and symbolic protections for minorities or out-groups in blue states (Connecticut declares ‘Women’s March on Washington Day). That stuff is cheap, keeps people happy, and has no consequences.

      So, feel free to blame the NRA for inaction at the federal level and the frothing of the mouth you see in red states. They have 0 to do with blocking this kind of legislation in blue states.

      1. That’s not entirely true. At least WRT gun legislation, blue state efforts repeatedly get struck down by federal courts (so much for states rights). Chicago’s strict gun ban was ruled unconstitutional by the federal courts. And the state was forced to allow concealed carry by a federal court ruling (it was the last state barring it).

        With a hostile federal bench, legislature, and executive bodies like Trump’s Justice Dept using any means possible to prevent local and state gun restrictions, blue state legislators understandably wonder why bother passing anything?

      2. I’ve been stewing over your comment that “Democrats aren’t good at formulating policy.” The fact that the Democrats are a much broader party in terms of the range of values they represent, does make policy formulatin more difficult, but in all fairness, one has to consider the situation in which policy is created. Republicans, conversely, utilize think tanks (Heritage and Enterprise, ALEC) to pinpoint a goal and draft legislation that achieves it. Effective? Sure, benefits the majority? No. I went to good old Wikipedia and did a search of Democratic policies over time, and despite their difficulty in the formulation stage, they have developed policies that are really enduring. Further, they are focused more broadly than one privileged sector. I suggest a reading of the lists in the links below and deeper introspection as to which party has the best interests of the most people in our country at heart. Effectiveness can be achieved with dictators. Governing fairly and democratically is infinitley more difficult. I submit Dems, as flawed as they are in their leadership, have their hearts in the right place and historically have done the most good for America. It is entirely true that each party offers strengths that are more valuable at specific points in time, but if one is looking at the arc of time, my vote is with those who care about all people. It goes without saying (but I will anyway) that we are living in the Republican utopia they always dreamed of but couldn’t realize without T. Well, we are there and the GOP obviously is thrilled with the policies being offered as they are silent.

      3. I’m with you Mary. I’d go further and say actually Dems *have* been pretty good at formulating policy. So good that their policies end up becoming part of the woodwork and fade from view.

        Think of the environmental movement, started by a bunch of “hippies” in California. Now so engrained that plenty of Republicans support it. Curbside recycling started in CA. Back then it was controversial and considered a little crazy (you want to make recycling as easy garbage collection???). Now it’s considered normal even in red states. Remember that California’s laws predate the EPA (one of the reasons Trump’s EPA can’t supersede them).

        How about energy policy? The first mandates for renewable energy, and subsidies for electric cars, policies that made electric utilities provide a renewable option for their customers, all these started in blue states by dem legislators. (many in CA, notice a pattern? 🙂

        Decriminalization of marijuana? Blue states. CA gave a huge boost with its medical marijuana proposition. But CO, WA, OR took the baton by passing full legalization.

        Health care? How about Oregon and Hawaii attempting to pass universal health care, and being stymied by the Feds refusing to grant a medicaid waver? However, they did grant Oregon a waiver which allowed it to be the first state to explore euthanasia and rationing of futile, expensive end-of-life care in exchange for using that money to broaden insurance coverage for everyone. This was hugely controversial when the plan first started, but paved the way for the rest of the nation to talk about medical efficacy. New York for decades had a community-rating based insurance market that prevented the type of underwriting abuses that plagued the rest of the country.

        I could go on, and maybe I’m just biased but I feel that basically *every* policy change aside from tax cuts, defense spending (not actually improving our military’s effectiveness, just spending more), and cutting regulations, has come from Democrats. And many of them started in Dem state govts.

        In all honesty (and I’m curious, Chris, if you can add to this list), the only significant Republican policy I can see that came out of the states, aside from stupid culture war stuff, is an attempt to reform public sector unions, and school choice. Is there anything else?

        Yes, our sausage-making is messy, and usually out in the open as opposed to the Koch brothers holding their private ALEC meetings giving marching orders to the legislators under their sway. But even the horsetrading with Dem interest groups (they’re not all about identity politics, but sure, add those in too) is no uglier than Republicans dealing with their interest groups. For every Democrat worried about transgender vegans, there’s a Republican worried about what Bible verse might be used against him.

  7. Political reactions are typically designed more for P.R. value than hard actions in response to gun violence events. The recent school shooting in Santa Fe, TX, prompted quick action by Governor Abbott and a 40 page plan which has some good, known ideas but totally punts on the solid changes gun safety advocates recommend. It is already being criticized for its focus on hardening schools and adding more guns to campuses rather than focusing on registration and sale of guns. In response, Abbott’s gubernatorial opponent, former Dallas County, TX Sheriff, Lupe Valdez, offered a simple editorial as to what she feels is needed and would be effective. Neither, of course, explore the concept of insurance offered in Chris’ post, but here is the comparison of the views of the two candidates for TX Governor in 2018.

  8. “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.”
    I don’t understand how a person’s credit rating should affect their ability to buy a firearm, if they are able to afford insurance coverage and have no criminal record. I am also concerned that certain people wouldn’t even be allowed to buy a weapon for self-defense at home if they can’t get coverage because of some computer algorithm that deems them to be high-risk, based on something as inocuous as their search history. Overall, this system would favor firearms for the well-to-do over those of lower income, who might have a low credit rating or be unable to afford coverage. Would there be subsidies?

      1. We do this in health care…which is what the individual mandate was all about. And, I submit, more deaths occur due to lack of health insurance than through gun violence. America’s policy makers need to wake up and accept that civilized societies leverage costs in order to provide basic services and protections. It can work with guns; it is the only way to make health care work for all.

      2. WX – I don’t think gun owners will accept this liability. After all, half of America hasn’t accepted health care, and that offers something (for a price). Still, there is the ongoing problem for government to pay for increased insurance due to gun violence. School districts are beginning to experience this situation.

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