Thursday, January 27, 2011

Individual Responsibility

Conservatives are big on promoting “individual responsibility.” They espouse that we don’t need a government-run retirement plan, but rather individuals should be responsible for saving and investing for their golden years. Conservatives don’t support government-sponsored health care, but rather individuals should be able to opt in or opt out of personal medical insurance. So it follows that conservatives should be in favor of individual responsibility when it comes to gun ownership.

But what does individual responsibility mean with regards to firearm possession? It means that if the gun owner uses his weapon safely and responsibly, he or she has no additional obligation to society. But if the gun causes harm to others, then the owner is responsible for that harm and must compensate the victims. (I’m not referring to criminal action here; that is handled by the prosecutor. I’m advocating that the gun owner should be individually responsible for any civil harm that results from intentional or accidental misuse of a firearm.)

We already have such a model in place today. If a person chooses to drive a car, he or she is required by law to carry liability insurance. If the driver causes harm, he or she must correct that harm by compensating the aggrieved party, and that is accomplished through the insurance carrier. Safe drivers typically pay lower insurance premiums because they have fewer or no claims over a period of time. Automobile owners who complete drivers’ education classes also may have lower rates because they are typically a lower risk to the insurance companies than untrained drivers. The key point here is that drivers take on individual responsibility by carrying insurance in case of an accident. No one expects the state to pick up the tab if a driver accidentally damages property or requires another person to seek medical care.

We should do the same for firearms. As with automobiles, registration and insurance should be required for gun ownership. The free market that conservatives tout would set the rates for insurance premiums. As B.J. Richards of the Hall Institute for Public Policy points out:

People who can demonstrate that they're safe, sane, law abiding citizens would have cheap, easy access to gun insurance. Those that can't either would pay through the nose, or would be completely shut out of the system because nobody will insure them.

Choose not to insure your gun? It can be confiscated. Just like your car can be impounded on the spot if you don't have insurance.

Gun dealers would be required to see proof of insurance before they could sell a gun to an individual. Hence, profit-driven insurance companies would necessarily do background checks and those checks would most likely be more comprehensive than the weak or non-existent checks we have today.

Of course, the knee-jerk reaction from the NRA would be that any regulation or requirement to carry insurance is in violation of the Second Amendment. But this argument is fallacious. No portion of the Constitution is absolute. The First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech, but it does not provide the right to falsely shout “fire” in a crowded theater. Similarly, the Second Amendment provides the right to any citizen to own a gun, but it does not allow that person to be irresponsible with that ownership privilege.

The NRA will also argue that criminals will circumvent the system and purchase illicit guns without insurance. This is all true, but why make it easier by allowing a mass murderer to simply walk into a Wal-Mart or gun show and buy a weapon? Any reasonable proposal, like this one, that makes it harder for criminals to obtain guns while protecting the rights of ordinary citizens should be embraced by gun owners.

Implementation of mandatory gun insurance is a win-win for all parties. It upholds the Conservatives’ mantra of individual responsibility and puts the onus for regulation primarily on insurance companies. These companies will operate in their self-interest by making insurance for high risk individuals unaffordable or unavailable.  Insurance companies gain a new revenue stream to fatten their profit margins. And society becomes safer.

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