The mass murder committed at Umpqua Community College is a terrible reminder of the risk we accept by allowing widespread ownership of the means to easily and speedily commit mass murder. We need a better way to manage that risk.
A rough toll of costs at UCC includes lost earnings, ongoing medical, disability, loss of companionship, and loss of use. Those damages likely add up to tens of millions of dollars. Some of that will be paid by insurance coverages such as workers comp or medical, some of it will be paid by charity, and some of it will be left for victims and their families to eat. Virtually none of it will be paid by those most responsible, the shooter and those who gave him access to firearms. Why should that be? Why should the public bear the cost of private, risky decisions that inflict catastrophe on us?
There is an alternative, one that balances respect for gun rights with a recognition of the costs they impose on society. Require anyone possessing a gun to also hold high-limit liability insurance. Require anyone transferring a firearm or ammunition to verify the recipient's insurance coverage, with failure to perform that duty constituting negligence should the recipient use them to harm people.
Such insurance would not be a simple flat tax on gun owners. Insurers are good at classifying risks and determining what factors are connected with high costs. An older rural hunter who uses a gun safe probably wouldn't pay much, an unemployed young male who collects pistols when he isn't smoking pot might have to pay a lot. Why shouldn't he? Why wouldn’t we want him to?
A benefit of using private insurance to manage gun ownership is that it takes the task away from the government. Insurers would compete for business using whatever plans and assumptions they wanted. Neither the state nor any single insurer would decide who could or couldn’t own a gun, instead the market would determine the cost of ownership based on an individual’s risk. For those who believe that private gun ownership constitutes a check on government, insurance creates a kind of regulatory buffer. The state’s only role would be to ensure that those who had guns could make good on the damages that result.
Mandatory insurance provides a central means of recovery for victims of gun violence, funded by those most responsible for the violence. It provides market pricing, recognizing that gun owners are a diverse group posing diverse risks. It minimizes the role of the state, respecting the intent of the second amendment. And it sends a much needed message to gun owners every time they buy a gun or a bullet: that their private decisions have public consequences, and they will be made to pay for them.
Gun rights advocates routinely dismiss the risk that widespread ownership of firearms poses to the public. We should demand they put their money where their mouth is.