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Responsible Laws and Only Responsible People Will Have Guns

After my column last week, I’ve had a great time hashing out gun law variants with my brother Matt, the family gun enthusiast. Matt loves his guns, I love my brother, and I wouldn’t want to see him lose his guns. He even makes me understand the inherent feeling of safety that can come from gun ownership: "Don’t mess with me, I share office space with my brother.”

One area we explored a lot was Matt’s dislike of my idea to expand tort law to cover the manufacturers of guns. His argument was if a gun is deadly then it is well designed, so the manufacturer shouldn’t be punished for doing a good job. Unlike tobacco, where the manufacturers knew cigarettes to be dangerous while promoting them as healthy, gun makers and users have always known guns are deadly. Under the current law, gun makers can be sued for creating defective products that injure, i.e. the gun blows up in your face, the manufacturer is liable.

However, the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (“PLCAA”) prevents any expansion of tort law against the manufacturers beyond suing for a defective product. This removes any economic incentive for gun designers to make safer weapons. Some of the lawsuits the PLCAA currently prevents are lawsuits against gun manufacturers who fail to use or incorporate readily available safety devices into the weapons. This becomes more outrageous as technology expands to improve safety features on weapons.

Both Matt and I agree that background checks need to be ubiquitous and available for every seller of a firearm, not just dealers. Just this week in Wisconsin, jurors granted a six-million dollar judgment against a gun shop that sold weapons it knew or should have known were being sold to straw buyers. Those guns ended up in the hands of criminals, who used the guns in a crime. Two police officers were injured, so they sued the store owner. While this is a great deterrent to selling firearms without fully complying with background checks, the current law leaves a giant loophole when it comes to private citizens.

When attempting to sell one of his own guns, Matt was frustrated by his inability to get a background check on a prospective buyer. Matt is the type of gun owner you want. Someone who knows the danger and the benefits of guns. He doesn’t want guns in the hands of someone who will act irresponsibly or criminally. If we are serious about building market incentives into the gun market to prevent violence, we need to create liability for anyone who sells a gun. Everyone needs to comply with the same laws that a gun shop would need to follow in selling their merchandise, including background checks and waiting periods. The cost here would be to give private citizens access to the rules and databases necessary to comply. However, it is a small price to pay to provide for a safer community.

Everyone has seen the bumper sticker, “If we outlaw guns, only outlaws will have guns.” My response is, "Responsible gun laws ensure only responsible people have guns." An overall safer maxim, albeit not as pithy.

Another area of agreement with Matt is we should look at laws that introduce an insurance incentive into our gun market. No one is screaming that they are trying to take away your car because you have to carry insurance to drive it. No one should scream that you need liability insurance for other potentially dangerous items you chose to own. There is actually a bill in the House of Representatives to introduce a gun liability insurance requirement for gun purchasers. (Police officers and service members would be excluded.)

I can see it now: Special discounts for Safe Gun Owners. The insurance market will be highly economically motivated to determine who is safe to insure and who is not. Our other insurance markets fluctuate in price depending on contingencies that make it more likely the policy will need to be used. We’ve all answered these insurance questions: Do you smoke? Does anyone in your family smoke? Have you had a ticket in the last three years? Have you been in a car accident? Now imagine that concept applied to potential gun owners. It isn’t hard to imagine that at least some of the recent school shootings might have been avoided by a gun insurance questionnaire asking if any other individuals lived in the house of the gun purchaser, if the guns were secured in a gun safe and if anyone living in the house suffered from a mental illness. The premiums quite possibly could have reduced the ability of the shooter’s mother to stockpile an arsenal that wasn’t secure, with the added benefit of keeping the shooter out of the school.

Insurance eliminates the need for a gun registry and gives law enforcement a way to quickly take an uninsured gun out of circulation. Your gun, like your car, could get impounded if you don’t have proof of insurance. This doesn’t mean that we won’t have shootings--we will, just like we still have accidents with uninsured motorists. The design would be to make tragedy less likely through economic forces.

As I said last week and in my discussions with Matt, no one wants to get shot. Instead of arguing about eliminating access to weapons and ammunition (a whole other article), let's focus our political discussions on how to design a gun market where only law-abiding, mentally sound people can obtain guns. We could call it the “Only People Like Matt Should Own Guns” law.

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