(CONNECTICUT) — The National Rifle Association lost much of its credibility when its longtime spokesman, Wayne LaPierre, said, “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” He called for immediate action to place armed guards in every public school in the country. In case there’s doubt about the NRA’s credibility problem, consider the front page of the next day’s New York Post: “Gun Nut! NRA loon in bizarre rant over Newtown.”
If President Barack Obama stands for something, Rupert Murdoch, who owns the Post and the Fox News Channel, has usually found ways to stand against it. The NRA will oppose any new gun regulation, and Murdoch and his vast media empire would normally be on its side. But the massacre of 12 girls and eight boys in Newtown, Conn., all of them 6 and 7 years old, is evidently too much even for the Mighty Murdoch, which is saying something. Remember, this is the guy who tried to buy himself a president.
So one of the most influential voices of conservatism is now at odds with one of the most influential voices of conservatism. The tide appears to be turning. A new CNN poll found most people, and most Republicans, approve of the specifics of gun control like background checks and bans on certain weapons. After announcing the vice president as head of a commission to recommend new gun laws, Obama said that he’d do everything in his power to ensure nothing like the Newtown massacre ever happens again.
Will a ban change the nature of violence?
Whatever transpires next year isn’t going to be a skate. LaPierre might now be a “gun nut,” but many conservatives remain convinced that “gun control” is another way of saying creeping tyranny. Once the government outlaws one kind of gun, they say, it’s only a matter of time before it outlaws them all. Hence, their firm opposition to U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s soon-to-be proposed ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.
Indeed, not all conservatives are against the ban. The federal judge who sentenced Jared Lee Loughner to multiple life sentences now believes a ban is justified in light of the extraordinary social cost of the unrestricted right to bear arms. The same CNN poll found a majority of conservatives (56 percent) also favor a ban, as do 60 percent of Republicans.
But, as LaPierre implied on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” such a ban wouldn’t be the end of mass shootings. Lots of guns can do lots of harm. Here’s a clip of a man firing and reloading the same handgun Loughner used. It takes about four seconds to fire two clips of five rounds each. The handgun’s typical magazine capacity is 15 rounds (Loughner used a high-capacity magazine that held 33 rounds). So the other gun issue, the one that hasn’t gotten the necessary attention, is access to guns, not just the guns themselves.
It should be said that LaPierre was being dishonest when he said a ban on high-capacity magazines wouldn’t make a difference. It would. According to the Hartford Courant, six kids survived the Newtown massacre, likely because Adam Lanza had to reload (the other possibility is the gun jammed).
Then there’s this inconvenient truth. This president doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to facing down an intransigent opposition. Obama is often portrayed as militant left but look more closely, writes Bruce Bartlett, and he’s a latter-day liberal Republican. Democrats, for their part, have avoided talk of gun control since 2000. So it’s not hard to imagine Obama’s conceding to Republicans wary of the wrath of the NRA.
What to do? What would satisfy conservatives, address the problem of access and be conducive to the needs of a (not too liberal) Democratic president? There might be a way and, paradoxically, it starts with the NRA.
The NRA offers something it calls “excess personal liability” insurance. It protects members against liability lawsuits up to $250,000 for accidents that happen while hunting and shooting. The organization provides these plans because, it says, “accidents do happen no matter how careful you are.”
That the NRA offers liability insurance suggests that the organization, despite perceptions to the contrary, is of two minds when it comes to constitutional freedoms. Americans have the right to bear arms but they also have to right to personal safety, and in the event that one right infringes on the other (if, say, someone is accidentally shot while deer hunting), Americans can demand compensation for the infringement.
Car insurance works according to the same political principle. The benefits of owning a car are private but the potential detriments are public.
The difference between gun and car insurance is the latter is so much a part of ordinary life that no one remembers the underlying political principle.
Here are two more differences.
One, everyone understands the risk of owning a car, but there is no such consensus when it comes to the risk of owning a gun. In fact, the risks are frighteningly high, especially for children. The Children’s Defense Fund found that 90,000 kids died from gunfire between 1979 and 2001.
Two, everyone understands risk is determined by a car owner’s age, sex, physical condition, medical history, the kind of car she drives and other criteria, but there are no such criteria when it comes to firearms. Whether an 18th century musket loader or a Bushmaster .223 rifle, it’s all the same, because no one is being held responsible for the cost of the risk.
Yet the NRA, the foremost gun rights group, itself acknowledges the potential risk of gun ownership. After all, it says, “accidents do happen.” The implication is that personal liability insurance is just common sense.
Gun control and personal responsibility
Common sense is what most liberals believe gun control is. NRA members agree in concrete terms, but they hate “gun control.” This presents an opportunity for Obama, which he appears to see. In his Newtown speech, he hinted at a rhetorical shift from “control” to “safety.” I think he and the Democrats could take this one step further, and continue driving a wedge between NRA members and its political wing, by calling for “gun insurance.”
Insurance for gun owners and gun sellers could achieve multiple ends. First, it would harness the power of free enterprise to reduce gun violence. With minimal government involvement, gun insurance could solve the problem of access by focusing on the risk of firearms and their potential liability.
Broadly speaking, if you are young, male and want to buy a bad-ass assault rifle for target practice, then you pay a lot. If you have a criminal record, you are denied coverage and therefore denied the ability to buy a gun. If you are old, female, never had so much as a speeding ticket and want to buy a six-shooter for home safety, then you pay less. Policyholders, moreover, would have an incentive to reduce premiums by taking safety courses, buying less lethal guns, buying safer guns (with trigger locks), etc. In any case, the emphasis wouldn’t be on gun rights anymore but on personal responsibility.
Personal responsibility is a mantra among conservatives. Of course, that’s no guarantee of the NRA’s approval of any new gun regulation. Indeed, no matter how grounded it might be in such bedrock conservative principles, we can expect the NRA to be against a new law. That’s why it’s important to turn the second amendment around against the NRA.
As Andrew Meyer, professor of history at Brooklyn College, wrote in proposing the government mandate firearms liability insurance, “The second amendment guarantees that gun ownership is a right, not a universal actuality on the terms most convenient to those desiring weapons. If the second amendment allows that every citizen may be compelled to pay the fair market value of a weapon, it also allows that each gun owner may contribute toward private funds mitigating the social costs of gun use.”
In other words, with great freedom comes great responsibility.
Gun insurance: Could it work?
The idea of gun insurance has been in the air for a while but it is starting to gain traction. In 2009, an Illinois state congressman proposed liability coverage up to $1 million for gun owners and sellers. Nothing came of it. Forbes came out with a short piece on the idea, as did Reuters, both focusing on its business, legal or policy aspects.
But the political aspect of gun insurance is also evident. Do I think this idea is going to take hold? No. Even so, it’s worth trying, and it’s better than what’s been proposed thus far.
Democrats are currently focused on the assault weapons ban but a better use of their energies might be a focus on gun insurance, which would lead to all the things they want on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines without alienating conservatives whose support they need. A focus on gun insurance would be turning the ideals of conservatism against the NRA. It says insurance is common sense, that accidents happen. And it tacitly acknowledges the injustice of society bearing the cost of individual freedom.
If the president and the Democrats were to push for gun insurance — and stop spending all their time on an assault-weapons ban, which is a partial step toward meaningful gun control anyway — they would be forcing the NRA to act against its own stated positions, against the spirit of the second amendment and against the larger principles of conservatism.
Billionaire plutocrat Rupert Murdoch has already turned against the NRA because of the NRA’s total indifference to 20 dead kids. Memories fade, though, and Obama and the Democrats have a chance to put a bigger wedge between the NRA and conservatism at large. And the key to that, paradoxically, is being the “liberal Republicans” that they are.
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