We Need a Boring Solution to Gun Control

So that you know where I am coming from, I’m a Quaker, and I grew up in Newtown, Connecticut. My sister still lives there. Her wedding was a few days after the Sandy Hook shooting, and a member of the bridal party lost a family member. We had a moment of silence at the reception. Right now, my mother lives in San Bernardino County in California. I’m sick of people getting shot, and I’m sick of people in leadership roles refusing to do anything about it other than to offer their thoughts and prayers.

I admit to having some difficulty in understanding what exactly should be done to fix this. I think more regulation is absolutely necessary, but the question remains what regulations would actually work, and what regulations we can actually pass. I will also state now that I think our greater problem, of which our poorly regulated firearm proliferation is a symptom that begets its own problems, is that as a country we have embraced the myth of violence as a solution, but that’s a topic for another post. On that note, I will be using the term “justified shooting” to refer to shootings that are legally held to be defensible, without making a claim about the morality of the same.

Before we can get to fixing anything, there are a few facts that have to be acknowledged:

  1. Guns are ubiquitous. There are somewhere in the neighborhood of 270 to 357 million guns in America. Plus, they are extremely durable goods: Here is a video of a 200 year old pistol that still shoots. A well-cared-for firearm can last pretty much indefinitely. A lot of firearms are family heirlooms. Suffice it to say, even if we stopped producing all firearms today there would be no shortage of them for decades to come.
  2. People don’t always obey the rules. This is the “when guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns” argument. Setting aside the impracticability of outlawing firearms entirely, it’s not a solution that’s likely to earn the adherence of someone who is only interested in getting the illegal gun so he can do something illegal with it. And thanks to fact 1, he would be likely to not have much difficulty getting the gun. This is also why requiring licensing and training isn’t always incredibly effective.
  3. People feel safer when they have a gun. To be clear, the feeling of safety is only that. The overwhelming evidence is that having a gun makes you less safe than being unarmed, and that having gun in the house only makes you more likely to be murdered. Nevertheless, the psychological effect is significant, and there’s no point denying that people do believe they are safer when they have a gun for “defense.”

So, with these things in mind, I have a dramatically uninteresting solution: Insurance and products liability.

First, there should be an insurance policy tied to every gun, which covers a $1,000,000 payout to the estate of any person who is killed with that gun, or which will pay out the medical costs and other losses associated with being shot and surviving. This payout figure isn’t paid if the shooting is determined to have been justified.  On that note, insurance should also cover the legal costs of the owner in making a case that the shooting was justified. I don’t see a need to bankrupt people involved in justified shootings with legal fees.

This insurance does a few things that I like for a solution. First, it provides a fund so that if someone does pull the trigger in a justified shooting, he isn’t buried by the legal costs of proving it. Second, it provides a fund to financially assist the person who is shot, or the family of the person who is killed. Third, and the primary reason I suggest this, it creates a marketplace incentive around the risk inherent to ownership of the gun.

I think that the insurance companies are smart enough to realize that a gun stored in a gun safe, with the ammo stored separately is less likely to be involved in an unjustified shooting than one kept loaded under a pillow, and merits a discount on the premium. I think the same applies to owners who take regular safety classes, or who only use the gun for target shooting, or for firearms that have smaller clip sizes, or that aren’t automatic or semi-automatic.

My hope is that having an insurance policy tied to the gun will make people engage in responsible practices above and beyond what is strictly required. All things being equal, I’d prefer the people carrying firearms to take safety classes and store them properly. I’d also like it if the possibility of an increased insurance premium keeps somebody from pulling a weapon on a shoplifter in a home depot parking lot the next time.

I don’t think an insurance requirement is by any means a sufficient measure to stop people who want to kill. And I think it’s not going to stop the “bad guys” from being able to get guns. But I do think it will help with the shootings that don’t get all the press, but which actually make up a considerably larger percentage of gun related, non-suicide killings (and I think it would probably help with the suicide deaths as well, but those aren’t the subject here).

I have another proposal that could help to shore up where the insurance policy doesn’t do anything. Expand products liability to cover firearms involved in unjustified shootings.

A quick overview of products liability for those of you who didn’t subject yourself to law school and the requisite torts class: When a manufactured product hurts somebody because it was made with a dangerous defect, made based on an unsafe design, or the manufacturer didn’t include sufficient warnings, we make the manufacturer liable for the harm done.

Ordinarily, guns aren’t subject to products liability because guns are designed to shoot bullets that can kill people, it’s not a defect or a design flaw when they’re used that way, and there’s no extra warning they could include on the gun that is going to make people more wary of the danger.

Guns are designed for, among other things, shooting people. We need to be more specific than that, and if we’re going to keep insisting that people should have these weapons for the purpose of being used in part to shoot people, we should at least describe the stated purpose of their use as shooting people only under justified circumstances. If the gun is used to shoot someone in unjustified circumstances, then we say we say that’s not what it’s for and we should hold the manufacturer financially accountable.

It’s not an exciting solution, but it could have a serious impact on how guns are sold if the manufacturers (and distributors and the point of sale) have a financial stake in the guns they sell not being used in murders. If we tie the manufacturer’s wallet to the guns they make being used responsibly, they will take an interest in making sure the guns are sold responsibly.

What do you think? Am I wrong? Post a comment below and let me know. In the meantime, if you agree that we need a boring solution to gun control, please share this post!

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