In March 2013, Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) and eight cosponsors introduced the “Firearm Risk Protection Act” (H.R. 1369), the first nationwide bill to require gun buyers to have liability insurance. If you own a gun, do you need additional coverage?
H.R. 1369 stalled in Congress. If passed, it would have imposed a fine of $10,000 on gun owners who lacked coverage. It exempted service members and law enforcement officers. Following the massacre in a Newtown, Conn. school, the Legislatures in several states (California, Massachusetts, New York and Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia) also considered bills making liability insurance for gun owners mandatory.
Professor Nelson Lund, a constitutional law professor at George Mason University, first proposed this type of legislation in the Alabama Law Review 25 years ago. He said gun control often “substantially interferes with the right of law-abiding citizens while doing very little about the behavior of criminals or irresponsible people.” He proposed requiring liability insurance to discourage “irresponsible people” from owning firearms. He said it would also partly “compensate the victims of irresponsible behavior.”
Proponents argue that requiring gun owners to have liability coverage differs little from requiring drivers to carry liability coverage on their cars. Insurance could also encourage gun safety, since insurers would likely reward gun owners with good safety records and who use safety devices, such as gun locks or safes, with lower premiums.
Liability Coverage under Your Homeowners Policy
Most insurers will not charge gun owners extra premiums on their homeowners insurance or renters insurance. In fact, many will not even ask whether you own a gun. However, if the application requests this information, failing to disclose that you own a gun could cause the insurer to deny coverage for any gun-related claim.
The liability portion of your homeowners insurance policy reimburses you if you become legally obliged to pay another for bodily injury or property damage you cause through negligent or accidental acts. So, if your gun went off while you were cleaning it and injured your neighbor, your policy would likely provide coverage. But if you shoot a burglar in self-defense, your policy might exclude coverage. Why?
Intentional acts: All homeowners insurance policies (in fact, nearly all insurance policies) exclude liability coverage for the insured’s “intentional acts.” For example, the 2011 ISO standard homeowners policy excludes coverage for “expected or intended injury.” It defines this as:
“Bodily injury” or “property damage” which is expected or intended by an “insured” even if the resulting “bodily injury” or “property damage”:
- Is of a different kind, quality or degree than initially expected or intended; or
- Is sustained by a different person, entity, real or personal property, than initially expected or intended.
However, under Exclusion E.1., this does not apply to “bodily injury” resulting from the insured’s use of reasonable force to protect persons or property.
Older homeowners insurance policies might not include this last, important sentence. If you have an older policy, it might be less likely to cover you for intentional shootings, even those committed in self defense. The existence of a statewide “stand your ground” law could also affect gun owners’ coverage.
Criminal acts: Some insurers have a stricter version of the intentional act exclusion. These exclude coverage for harm that results from criminal acts, even if harm was unintentional. This exclusion could apply regardless of whether you are charged with or convicted of a crime.
Firearms exclusions or limitations: Insurers sometimes exclude or limit the coverage under a standard policy by attaching a policy endorsement. One such endorsement limits the homeowner’s liability coverage to $25,000 per occurrence for bodily injury and property damage “…arising out of the use, ownership or maintenance of any firearms….” If your policy includes such an endorsement, you can try negotiating with the insurer to have it removed.
Coverage under Liability Umbrellas
The typical homeowners insurance or renters insurance policy provides between $300,000 and $500,000 in liability coverage. The potential high cost of gun-related liability claims means you could quickly spend through these limits. A personal liability umbrella policy can provide additional coverage. These policies are non-standard, so you will want to review them carefully for any firearms-related exclusions or limitations.
Specialized Gun Owners Policies
Some insurers offer specialized gun owner policies, including policies endorsed by the National Rifle Association (NRA). Policies vary by insurer, so you will want to review them before buying. Some policies may duplicate your existing coverage or contain so many exclusions that coverage will seldom apply.
For example, the NRA’s Personal Firearms Liability Insurance provides up to $250,000 in liability coverage “for any injuries you unintentionally cause while hunting or trapping on public or private land. This coverage also covers you while shooting in competitions or at private shooting ranges.” Because it covers only “unintentional” injuries in limited situations, this policy might duplicate coverage you already have.
The NRA’s Self-Defense Insurance can provide up to $1 million in liability coverage if you use a gun in self-defense, including criminal and civil defense costs.
Property Insurance Coverage
Your homeowners or renters policy will cover guns and other personal property from fire, theft and other losses. However, most policies have lower sublimits for certain valuable or theft-prone items, including guns. Your property policy might have limits as low as $2,000 on firearms. If you own a valuable gun or guns, you can cover add a “personal article floater” to your policy. This “endorsement,” or addition, covers possessions listed and described in the floater. You can also buy a separate “valuable items” policy, which might provide more comprehensive coverage.