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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Of the many ideas for new gun laws, one proposal captures the interest of economists: liability insurance.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Most states require car owners to have liability insurance to cover damage their vehicles caused others.

INSKEEP: And some economists think gun owners should have to do the same.

Here's Caitlin Kenney from NPR's Planet Money team.

CAITLIN KENNEY, BYLINE: When you want to purchase car insurance, you have to answer questions like this...

JACOB BAUM: Is this the first time you're getting a car? How many years have you been driving? In the past five years, how many accidents or violations?

KENNEY: Jacob Baum sells auto insurance at Choice Insurance Agency in Brooklyn, New York. He asks these questions to help insurers figure out how likely it is your car will be involved in an accident - not just you as the driver, your car.

BAUM: Besides yourself, who lives with you, regardless of their age?

KENNEY: Now, imagine we ask gun owners these same questions.

JUSTIN WOLFERS: How old are you? What's your gender? What type of gun is this? Are there teenagers in the house?

KENNEY: Justin Wolfers is a professor of economics and public policy at the University of Michigan, and this is what he wants. He wants people like Jacob Baum to be asking these same questions of gun owners, to be selling them liability insurance based on their answers.

WOLFERS: We know that cars kill people. And so we have strong liability insurance requirements for cars. We also know guns kill - in the United States - literally tens of thousands of people a year. It seems like it's creating enormous social harm, and we're asking you to pay for it.

KENNEY: Wolfers say requiring insurance wouldn't just provide compensation for families of gun violence victims. It would help keep guns out of the hands of people we don't want to have them. Insurance agents would be able to identify risky gun owners just like they identify risky drivers. And those people could be denied insurance or have to pay really high rates for it. Not only that, responsible gun owners would get a discount for taking extra precautions with their guns, just like drivers who have good driving records can get cheaper insurance rates.

WOLFERS: Insurance companies would look at someone who is a responsible hunter, who used a gun lock, kept their guns stored separately from where they had their ammunition, had it locked away. They'd probably charge them much, much lower premiums than they would, for instance, a young hot-head who stored their gun near their bed.

KENNEY: In theory, Wolfers says, a law like this could keep guns out of the hands of bad people, while motivating good people to be extra safe.

RUSS ROBERTS: And that's true in theory, but in practice, it doesn't work that way, because people don't necessarily comply with the law.

KENNEY: Russ Roberts is an economist and a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institute. He says the major flaw with this idea: criminals. If you're already a lawbreaker, why would you follow this law?

ROBERTS: They're not going to register it. They're not going to license it, and they're not going to buy that insurance. They're going to buy the gun on the black market. So the money won't be there to compensate the victims, as nice as that would be, but more importantly, there's no discouragement or deterrence for those folks from the existence of that policy.

KENNEY: Even with cars, this is a problem. The Insurance Research Council says one in seven drivers is not insured. And liability insurance for cars is pretty strictly enforced. It would be a lot harder to ensure that gun owners have insurance. You know if someone's driving a car. You don't know if they're carrying a gun. And sending law enforcement to people's homes to check for guns and gun insurance would almost certainly face legal challenges. Caitlin Kenney, NPR News.

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