D.C. bill would require gun owners to buy liability insurance

The District would be the first jurisdiction in the country to require gun owners to purchase liability insurance, under a bill being considered by the D.C. Council.

The legislation, introduced Tuesday by D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh, would mandate that gun owners maintain policies of no less than $250,000 in coverage. By requiring insurance, Ms. Cheh said she hopes the law would ensure that money is available to help a gunshot victim pay medical costs and promote gun safety.

“I think there ought to be a source of money that they could count on to compensate them for their injuries,” Ms. Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat, said of victims of gun violence.

As introduced Tuesday, Ms. Cheh’s version of the bill would cover “any damages resulting from negligent acts, or willful acts that are not undertaken in self-defense.” She said she envisions the District’s law providing coverage for a wide range of scenarios, from a person intentionally shot during a robbery to a child who picks up an unsecured gun and fires at someone. The bill would require most gun owners to get insurance within 30 days of the law’s passage or have their gun permits revoked.

At least six states have introduced similar gun liability insurance legislation over the last several months, with the law proposed in New York requiring insurance of at least $1 million, according to the New York Times. As of mid-February, none of the six states — California, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York and Pennsylvania — had passed the legislation.

Ms. Cheh, a constitutional law professor, said she introduced the bill “in an effort to balance reasonable restrictions on the Second Amendment with safe and responsible gun legislation.” She said she hopes insurance companies can promote safer gun ownership by offering lower rates to those who meet certain criteria or follow safety guidelines, but she doesn’t believe that requiring insurance will create a barrier for gun ownership.

“If you create a standard that can’t be met, it’s like a ban. But I don’t think it comes anywhere near that,” she said.

As policymakers look to address gun control in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn., some wonder whether these types of laws ignore a rather large loophole.

“Do you think for one second that the bad guys are going to buy an insurance policy?” asked George Lyon, president of the District’s Community Association for Firearms Education. “This is a solution in search of a problem.”

Organizations like the National Rifle Association already offer insurance policies for gun owners — personal liability plans between $100,000 and $250,000 offer coverage for bodily injury or property damage. Plans offering self-defense insurance cover injuries and damage as well as civil and criminal court costs, as long as the policyholder is acquitted of criminal charges or the charges are dropped. A policy with the highest coverage for both types of insurance would cost $254 annually, according to the NRA.

Mr. Lyon said he owns liability insurance for his gun but questions whether requiring such insurance would be unduly burdensome for some.

“What you’re really doing there is telling people of lesser means that we don’t want you to have a gun,” Mr. Lyon said.

Nationwide, medical care for those killed or injured by gunfire in 2010 cost an estimated $3.2 billion, according to a USA Today report on a cost analysis study by the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation.

The District’s Crime Victims Compensation Program already offers a form of compensation that could be utilized by gunshot victims for things like medical treatment, loss of wages and funeral costs, but reimbursement is capped at $25,000 per claim.

Any movement on Ms. Cheh’s Firearm Insurance Amendment Act will likely be sometime off. The bill, co-sponsored by council member David A. Catania, at-large independent, was referred jointly to the District’s committees on the Judiciary and Public Safety and Business and Consumer Affairs for a hearing. Judiciary committee Chairman Tommy Wells, Ward 6 Democrat, said he needed to research the issue and that a hearing likely wouldn’t take place before summer.

Ms. Cheh said she hopes to work out the details of the legislation during a hearing, such as whether a minimum $250,000 coverage amount should be adjusted, and to hear from stakeholders on the proposal.

Among others concerned with the bill’s potential impact is the District’s police union chairman, who wonders how the law would affect law enforcement, particularly retired police officers. While the proposed law leaves an exemption for any “peace officer,” who Ms. Cheh said would presumably be covered through their employer, it was not explicitly stated whether or not military or retired law enforcement would also be required to get insurance.

“This is the type of legislation that on its face could be so sweeping that it could have consequences that are unintended,” Fraternal Order of Police Chairman Kristopher Baumann said.

Ms. Cheh said she did not anticipate any interference from Congress, which has oversight over laws passed in the District, if the measure were to pass the council. Because the District’s initial gun ownership legislation was passed without issue from Congress and because other states are also contemplating bills calling for mandatory gun insurance, Ms. Cheh said she thinks it would be “less palatable” for Congress to interfere on such a bill.

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