Trayvon Martin Might Be Alive If the Law Required Gun Insurance

During George Zimmerman’s trial, one rarely heard the death of Trayvon Martin linked to the issue of firearm safety. There is little doubt that if Zimmerman had not been armed, Martin would be alive. But beyond that, would Sanford have been less safe? Would Zimmerman? To what degree are firearms dangerous in and of themselves?

In other words, how much more likely does the incidence of injury or death become in any situation in which a firearm is present? The NRA has blocked the government from publishing statistics on gun deaths and injury. But an answer might be found in Kansas.

The cost of firearms insurance might have motivated the Sanford Police and the organizers of the Twin Lakes Neighborhood Watch to insist that no weapons were carried by volunteers such as George Zimmerman.

That state passed a law in the wake of the Newtown massacre, effective July 1, that allowed public-school teachers to carry firearms.

As a result EMC Insurance, the company that has underwritten liability at Kansas schools for almost 40 years, has decided against renewing the state’s policies, declaring that the risk of giving guns to anyone but law enforcement in a building full of children is too expensive.

This should serve as a bellwether.

EMC has no agenda other than profit. Yet introducing firearms to a venue in which it has been employed for four decades has forced it to forego those earnings. It’s too risky.

It would be hard to find a better illustration of the fact that firearms are in and of themselves a personal and social hazard and that the mere presence of weaponry in any situation, irrespective of the intentions of the participants, increases the likelihood of injury or death to everyone.

So what would constitute a solution?

Unfortunately, the debate over firearm regulation has generally polarized around extreme positions that have little bearing on the practical realities that confront us. “Anti-gun” partisans focus on banning firearms altogether. “Pro-gun” partisans focus on constitutional liberties while overlooking the responsibilities those rights entail. Neither of these approaches is reasonable.

There are already 300 million firearms in circulation. Any law banning guns would be a study in overreach so absurd as to make the Volstead Act look sober by comparison. But the position that firearms ownership must be unrestricted is equally untenable. The right to bear arms can only be exercised under the aegis of a coinciding and equally robust duty to society at large.

The question then is not how we can control guns, but how we can live with them.

How can we safeguard Second Amendment rights while ensuring, to the greatest extent possible, that those rights are exercised responsibly? Kansas may show us the way.

Perhaps our focus on government power and oversight has blinded us to the real nature of the problem and the full array of measures that might alleviate it. Perhaps the mechanisms that might dampen the risks of firearms ownership, that would decrease the likelihood of tragedies like both Newtown and Sanford, lie not in government, but in the private sector.

A person is likelier to cause death or injury with a gun than with a car. Yet while we mandate that car owners must carry liability insurance, we do not do the same for firearms owners. Firearms mishaps cost the economy billions of dollars every year. Those costs are not, for the most part, borne by gun owners, but by the communities in which they live.

This is illogical and unfair. The rights of gun ownership are private, but the costs of gun ownership are socialized. Therefore, perhaps the fairest and most effective measure we might take is to mandate that all gun owners must purchase liability insurance.

Firearms advocates might protest that an insurance mandate would infringe upon Second Amendment rights, but such objections do not stand the test of reason.

The Second Amendment does not require that all citizens be provided with firearms free of charge. We accept on principle that everyone must pay the fair-market price for a weapon. But that price, while it reimburses and profits the firearm producer, does not fairly embody the true costs of gun ownership, in the same way that a person who has purchased a car without an insurance policy has failed to meet basic economic responsibilities. Until the social costs inherent in the ownership of a firearm have been accounted for, the true price has not been paid.

Mandating that all firearms owners obtain liability policies would achieve many social goods more effectively than regulatory prohibitions, even if the political will to enact such regulations existed. At a very basic level, the added expense of insurance would serve as a “gateway” impediment inhibiting the proliferation of guns. Beyond this, experience suggests that once market forces were unleashed, they would alter people’s behavior in real and positive ways.

Insurers such as EMC would have an interest in offering incentives to reduce its liability by fostering firearms safety. Owners could secure lower rates by taking courses in proper gun use, maintenance, and storage, and by implementing safeguards to keep weapons away from children and other illegitimate users. Rates would be lowest for weapons that possessed safety features such as private locks, or “smart guns” designed to be operable only by the owner. The increased marketability of such products would set off a race to design and promote safety features that would reduce insurance costs for the consumer.

The cost of firearms insurance might have motivated the Sanford Police Department and the organizers of the Twin Lakes Neighborhood Watch to insist that no weapons were carried by volunteers such as George Zimmerman. Obviously, such a prohibition would not keep someone from breaking the rules, but it would established a norm and thus a powerful deterrant.

There can be little doubt that an insurance mandate would significantly reduce the incidence of firearm death and injury in the U.S. Through the use of the free market, relying on the free exercise of choice and responsibility by individuals, we can drastically mitigate the social hazards that firearms pose without any intrusion upon the rights guaranteed by the constitution.

It is time that we cease bickering over “gun control.”

It is time for a reasonable consensus that will grant everyone the benefits of gun safety.

 

Andrew Meyer is associate professor of history at Brooklyn College. His most recent book is The Dao of the Military: Liu An’s Art of War.