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Make gun owners liable for harm?

The recent tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School, like the 1996 massacre at Dunblane Primary School in Scotland, has ignited discussions about gun control in ways that shootings in Aurora and Tucson did not. The deaths of innocent children unnerve all of us.

Most people, though, tend to assume we have only two options: Either oppose or support gun control. This masks the complexity of options.

We can abolish guns to some degree and we can alter the restrictions on the guns citizens legally own. We do not merely support or oppose gun control; we must decide who can own which guns under what conditions. Developing an approach that balances responsible gun ownership and public safety is essential.

Some gun advocates say owning guns is a fundamental right. The evidence for a fundamental right, however, must be overwhelming. Fundamental rights (like freedom of speech and religious expression) protect people's chances of living a good life, whatever their particular interests, desires and beliefs.

The freedom to own a gun is not fundamental in this sense. Moreover, even fundamental rights can be limited if there are compelling state interests: for example, if they risk serious harm to others. Gun control might still be wrong if it violates a derivative right or is bad public policy.

Although the NRA correctly notes that "guns don't kill people, people do," this claim is irrelevant. Nuclear weapons on their own don't kill people either, but we wouldn't let civilians own them. Guns are not as dangerous as nuclear weapons, yet they are risky. They are designed to cause (and threaten) harm. That is precisely why gun advocates want them to be legal.

Still, even if risky, we cannot discount the costs of enforcement. Since there are as many guns in the United States as there are citizens, any attempt to restrict guns would be nigh-on impossible.

Highly plausible armchair arguments can be made that gun ownership is both dangerous and beneficial.

Gun control advocates note that guns are the easiest way to kill. They might use a knife or a baseball bat but are less likely to do so and less likely to cause fatal injury.

Gun advocates claim that since most criminals want to minimize risks when committing a crime, they are less likely to enter a house if they know residents are armed.

Both arguments are plausible.

What about the empirical evidence? Countries with the highest numbers of uncontrolled guns have the highest murder rates. Moreover, the prevalence of secondary gun markets explains how the widespread availability of guns increases homicides and other crimes. Most criminals get guns by stealing them or buying them from people who purchased them legally. Gun advocates claim guns prevent crime, but the overall statistical evidence tilts in favor of gun control advocates. Although less than perfect, we must act on the best evidence we have.

I think there is a middle way for countries like the United States with a deeply entrenched gun culture, countries where attempts to disarm the society would be beset with problems like those plaguing Prohibition.

We could employ policies used to limit harm from inherently dangerous objects, such as dynamite. Since dynamite has beneficial uses, we permit people to own it under tightly specifiable conditions. Since it is inherently dangerous, we heavily restrict its purchase, storage and use. Those who own dynamite are financially liable for any harm caused by it, even in the absence of negligence.

We could make gun owners strictly liable for harm caused by their guns.

If someone's child obtains his gun and kills another, the gun owner would be financially responsible to those harmed. If someone steals an unsecured gun and kills someone in a robbery, the gun owner would owe the victim compensatory damages. If the gun owner were grossly negligent (he left it lying next to a school playground, for example), criminal charges might be imposed.

These legal steps are justified since guns are inherently dangerous, and it is reasonable to expect people to take responsibility for their risky actions. Some people would be disinclined to own guns, while those owning guns would take greater care in storing, handling and using them.

This could achieve the aims of gun control without direct government intervention. This is more attractive than continuing the current scheme in which guns are easily obtainable, or completely denying individuals' interests in owning guns.

This approach would require gun owners to purchase liability insurance. This has the virtue of letting the market determine the degree of risk. Having to purchase insurance would make people take more care with guns they own, while providing financial remuneration to those harmed by their use.

Perhaps this will work best in tandem with other measures. What seems clear is that we cannot continue with the status quo.

Hugh LaFollette is the Cole Chair in Ethics at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. This was adapted exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times from a paper published in the journal "Ethics" in 2000.

Make gun owners liable for harm? 12/22/12 [Last modified: Saturday, December 22, 2012 3:31am]

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