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Originally published February 21, 2013 at 9:04 PM | Page modified February 22, 2013 at 6:44 AM

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States weigh mandatory insurance on guns

Groups representing gun owners oppose efforts to make insurance mandatory, saying law-abiding people should not be forced to buy insurance to exercise their constitutional right to bear arms.

The New York Times

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In a nation divided over efforts to curb gun violence and the right to bear arms, participants in the gun debate seem to agree on at least one thing: a bigger role for the insurance industry in a heavily armed society.

But what that role should be and whether insurers will choose to accept it are very much in dispute.

Lawmakers in at least six states, including California, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York and Pennsylvania, have proposed legislation this year that would require gun owners to buy liability insurance, much as car owners are required to buy auto insurance. Doing so would give a financial incentive for safe behavior, they hope, as people with less dangerous weapons or safety locks could qualify for lower rates.

“I believe that if we get the private sector and insurance companies involved in gun safety, we can help prevent a number of gun tragedies every year,” said David Linsky, a Democratic state representative in Massachusetts who wants to require gun owners to buy insurance. He believes it will encourage more responsible behavior and therefore reduce accidental shootings. “Insurance companies are very good at evaluating risk factors and setting their premiums appropriately,” he added.

Groups representing gun owners oppose efforts to make insurance mandatory, saying that law-abiding people should not be forced to buy insurance to exercise their constitutional right to bear arms. But some groups, including the National Rifle Association (NRA), endorse voluntary liability policies for their members. As several states pass laws making it easier for people to carry concealed weapons and use them for self-defense, some gun groups are selling policies to cover some of the legal costs stemming from self-defense shootings.

The U.S. Concealed Carry Association recently began selling what it calls Self-Defense Shield. “If you’re forced to justifiably use your gun in self-defense,” its website says, “Self-Defense Shield will help pay for your expert pro-2nd Amendment lawyer by reimbursing your legal-defense expenses following your acquittal — an ingenious system critical to the arsenal of any responsibly armed citizen.”

Premiums for such insurance range from $200 to $300 a year; in general, the coverage is narrowly written and excludes cases where a gun is used to commit a crime.

Some specialized underwriters are reviewing what their policies cover when it comes to shootings and weighing whether they should offer new types of coverage for gun owners. As more states pass laws allowing people to bring guns to public venues — including restaurants, bars, churches and the parking lots of their workplaces — some business groups have expressed concerns that they could be held liable for shootings on their properties, which could drive up their insurance costs.

On Thursday, when Gov. Dannel Malloy of Connecticut outlined his proposals to reduce gun violence — which included universal background checks, a ban on large-capacity ammunition magazines and a stronger assault-weapons ban — he called for officials to study “whether owners of firearms should be required to carry additional insurance.”

The insurance industry is wary of some proposals to require gun owners to buy liability coverage, particularly of bills, like one filed in New York, that would require coverage for damages resulting not only from negligence but also from “willful acts.”

Robert Hartwig, president of the Insurance Information Institute, said insurance generally covered accidents and unintentional acts — not intentional or illegal ones.

Some claims stemming from shootings have been covered by homeowners’ insurance — even by policies that said they did not cover illegal acts.

The families of the two students responsible for the 1999 killings at Columbine High School in Colorado used money from their homeowners’ policies to settle a lawsuit brought by families of most of the victims.

Christopher Monge, an insurance agent and gun owner in Verona, Wis., recently wrote a book, “The Gun Owner’s Guide to Insurance for Concealed Carry and Self-Defense.” Monge said the problem with most liability insurance is that it promises coverage only in cases of a gun owner’s negligence or an accidental shooting — and not if the gun owner shoots someone intentionally in self-defense.

He said he found several companies that would offer liability coverage in cases of self-defense, usually in the form of an “umbrella” policy that added a higher level of coverage than the routine coverage for negligence in a homeowners’ policy. An umbrella policy adds coverage for unusual, but potentially expensive, incidents.

He opposes proposals to make liability insurance mandatory. “They’re barking up the wrong tree, if you ask me,” he said. “Ninety-nine percent of gun owners are going to be safe and not go crazy.”

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