Amidst all the mass shootings in the United States, it was perhaps the shooting of an elementary school teacher by a six-year-old student that proved Americans can still be shocked by gun violence. News of the shooting in Newport News, Va., was short on details, given the age of the alleged shooter, but among the questions that immediately arose was where a six-year-old got the gun and what role his parents played in the tragedy.
There have been other highly publicized shootings – often involving young men – in which parents have been accused of aiding or at least not doing enough to stop their child from taking up arms against his peers.
There are also hundreds of cases annually in which the owner of the weapon used in a fatal assault is criticized for leaving a gun unattended, loaning it to an acquaintance or selling it to someone ineligible to buy it.
Although public condemnation is harsh in these cases, criminal charges and ruinous litigation are less common. Nevertheless, the incidents are becoming common enough that insurance companies are starting to calculate the odds that they will face heavy losses because of negligence by gun-owning policyholders.
The insurance companies are right to be concerned. States and localities are beginning to take aim at insurers in shooting cases. A pair of laws went into effect in San Jose, California, and statewide in New Jersey in January requiring gun owners to have liability insurance.
Both measures will face vigorous Second Amendment challenges from the gun lobby and whether either survives remains to be seen, according to a recent Insurance Journal article.
One of the new mandates is a municipal ordinance in San Jose, California that requires gun owners to “obtain and continuously maintain in full force and effect a homeowner’s, renter’s or gun liability insurance policy.” But there is a glaring exception – homeowner’s and renter’s policies generally cover only third parties, usually visitors to a home, not occupants. Thus, the insurance wouldn’t cover cases where, for example, a child gets hold of an unsecured gun and shoots family members.
More significantly, such policies don’t provide coverage for intentional acts – like school shootings. The National Safety Council has found that only about 1% of firearm deaths are accidental. The majority – 54% – are suicides and 43% are homicides.
But even though it might not have much initial impact, the San Jose ordinance is expected to set off legal arguments that could eventually result in more far-reaching provisions.
In New Jersey, the state legislature took a broader approach, mandating that “Every private citizen who carries a handgun in public in this State shall maintain liability insurance coverage insuring against loss resulting from liability imposed by law for bodily injury, death, and property damage sustained by any person arising out of the ownership, maintenance, operation or use of a firearm carried in public wherein such coverage shall be at least in an amount or limit of $300,000, exclusive of interest and costs, on account of injury to or death of more than one person and for damage to property, in any one incident.”
The New Jersey law is not only statewide but also much broader in its potential applicability, since it would apply to intentional acts as well as accidents. But insurance law in New Jersey and elsewhere generally exempts criminal acts from coverage, so like the San Jose ordinance, the New Jersey law likely faces a tough legal battle.
In a separate case, a federal judge today ruled that a New Jersey law limiting concealed-carry permit holders from carrying guns in public was unlawful. Judge Renée Marie Bumb of the U.S. District Court of New Jersey held that the restrictions were “so extensive and burdensome” that they rendered the right to “armed self-defense in public a nullity.”
The National Rifle Association (NRA), through an affiliated company, already offers personal liability insurance for gun owners, starting at $75 per year. It covers “Hunting and Shooting Accident Liability, Accidental Discharge Coverage, Lost or Stolen Firearm Liability and Lawful Personal Defense.”