Turner Osler: Gun owners should be required to have insurance, just like cars

This commentary is by Dr. Turner Osler, a career academic trauma surgeon at the University of Vermont Medical Center turned research epidemiologist.

Over a long career as an academic trauma surgeon, I’ve had the opportunity to observe and study firsthand how guns change, and sometimes end, lives. I’ve struggled to control bleeding in the operating room and sometimes made the heartbreaking call to parents who thought their son was at the library.

These experiences come flooding back now as I write.

Although I aged out of clinical surgery long ago, I’ve continued to study the problem of gun violence from the vantage point of an epidemiologist.

Our Congress, at the best of the gun lobby, blocked funding for gun research for decades, so there’s much that we don’t know, but some facts stand out.

For example, cars have always killed more people than guns, but as cars have become safer and guns have become more deadly and available, this balance has reversed: In 2020, more people died from gunshot wounds (45,222) than in automobile crashes (38,824 ).

And there’s this: In a typical year, more preschoolers are killed by a gun than are police officers.

Why have we failed to control gun mayhem? My years as a clinician taught me that, absent the correct diagnosis, any treatment was almost certain to fail. And I think this explains our continuing failure to stem the growing firearm carnage: We have simply misunderstood what the actual problem is.

It turns out that gun mayhem is not a moral problem, or a mental health problem, or even a problem in constitutional law; rather, it’s an economic problem, one of misaligned externalities.

It turns out that people with guns cause problems that bring with them costs, but, unfairly, the gun owners do not bear these costs; rather, these costs are transferred to all of us in the form of lost lives and increased health care costs that must be absorbed by health insurance companies and hospitals.

But this is unjust. Rather than simply transferring these costs to the rest of us, gun owners should bear these costs of the guns they choose to own.

Think of cars: Automobiles injure and kill many thousands of people every year, but these costs are borne by car owners, who are required to have insurance. Thus, requiring gun owners to carry insurance for the expenses their guns imposes on all of us has well-founded precedent; indeed, the necessary infrastructure of insurance companies is already in place.

Because the scope of gun deaths and injuries is broadly similar to that of cars, and the number of cars (263 million) is similar to the number of guns (393 million) in America, we might expect the yearly cost of gun insurance to be similar to that of an automobile.

Of course, some cars that are more commonly involved in accidents are more expensive to insure (Maserati for $5,000/year) than others (Subaru at $2,000), so we’d expect some guns (AR-15) to be more expensive to insure than others (duck-hunting shotgun).

Luckily, the invisible hand of the marketplace will handle the details for us.

As an aside, it’s likely that the insurance industry will endorse this approach: Providing insurance for the millions of guns in circulation will be profitable, perhaps even more profitable than insuring cars.

The results of correctly assigning cost of gun ownership might lead to a virtuous cycle: Gun manufacturers would have reason to make safer guns (trigger locks, fingerprint readers, etc.) because they would be cheaper to insure. Guns that pose particular risks might prove too expensive for most gun enthusiasts to own, just as insurance costs put some cars out of reach for most of us, so the most dangerous guns might gradually be removed from circulation. Another bonus: Gun buyback programs might get a boost.

Impossible, you say? Consider this: The San Jose City Council has approved the nation’s first law requiring gun owners to have liability insurance; it’s due to take effect in August.

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Tags: gun insurance, gun manufacturers, guns deadlier than cars, transfer the costs, Turner Osler


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