Virtually everyone is familiar with the success of the National Rifle Association (NRA) in defeating gun control efforts and expanding gun ownership of firearms. This effort has been accompanied by the NRA’s relentless state-by-state activities to encourage legislatures to broaden self-defense laws, such as Florida’s “stand your ground” statute. At the same time, the nation has experienced increasingly traumatic mass shootings involving multiple victims and resulting injuries, including damage to property.
Our nation seems either unwilling or incapable of determining some reasonable parameters surrounding the issue of gun ownership and the too often resulting violence and mayhem that are occasioned by firearms. On the one hand, there is the matter of what burden may our society place upon a constitutional privilege and, on the other, what steps may be taken to protect the lives of those injured in gun-related incidents. There are also collateral costs, such as medical treatment, rehabilitation expenses, lost work time—and funerals.
Naturally, the question arises: Who pays for the damages? The shooter? Society already shoulders the emergency treatment costs as well as those for first responders. Victims may receive some remuneration through victims’ crime compensation statutes. Shooters are ordinarily not wealthy and therefore often are judgment-proof.
In recognition of this, the NRA sponsors gun owner liability insurance to its 5 million members that, among other things, offers to pay for the real costs of exercising the self-defense paradigm it has cultivated. The policy will cover up to 20% of up-front legal costs and up to 80% of policy limits following dismissal or acquittal of legal charges. And—here’s the rub: The NRA’s decision to enter the insurance market for gun owners was premised, in part, on the fact that the pool of insureds ranged from 7 million to 14 million, figures well above its membership.
Recently, New York state authorities withdrew approval for NRA-supported sales of liability insurance for gun owners, asserting that such coverage violated public policy as well as the state’s insurance laws. Specifically, an investigation by a state agency found that the NRA-endorsed policy
… improperly provided insurance coverage for criminal defense for any act of self-defense covered under the policy for gun owners and their resident family members who may be charged with a crime involving a firearm.
According to the investigation, such coverage included bail money, costs for premiums or bonds, attorney consultation fees and retainers, investigation and defense expenses, and costs taxed to the insured or insured’s family in a criminal proceeding. High-end policy coverage provides up to $2 million in civil damage protection and $250,000 for criminal defense.
New York, under the leadership of its governor, has taken a strong stand on gun control, having adopted the Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement (SAFE) act in 2013, following the Sandy Hook shooting in Connecticut and an ambush shooting of two firefighters in upstate New York. The public policy conflict revolves around the issue of allowing insurance to underwrite criminal acts where self-defense is the claim.
How would the conflict play in a state such as Florida, where “stand your ground” is a legislated defense? In the most recent case in Florida, the sheriff refused to arrest a shooter who asserted the justification. A few days later, the local prosecuting attorney filed criminal charges. Would the sole punishment be that of the insurance carrier denying payment of any civil or criminal costs because the shooter was found guilty? Denial of civil costs only burdens the victims or the taxpayer or both.
The NRA has filed suit against New York, claiming that the state’s withdrawal of authorization allowing the not-for-profit to market its endorsed gun owner insurance has damaged its income so extensively that it might be forced into cutting its operations and services.
VoxFairfax is reviewing these issues as they affect the Commonwealth and welcomes information or sources from readers. Does Virginia have a statute prohibiting liability insurance coverage for criminal conduct? Should it? Does gun owner liability insurance encourage the use of firearms for self-defense. If the Commonwealth banned the sale and marketing of gun owner liability insurance would the economic damage to the NRA, a hometown organization, be fatal?