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Bill to require state gun owners to buy insurance finds few friends at hearing

By Johanna Somers

Publication: The Day

Published 03/20/2013 12:00 AM
Updated 03/20/2013 12:21 AM

Hartford - The deadly force of a gun should be treated like the deadly force of a car, said state Sen. Beth Bye, D-Hartford, as she recalled hearing a parent speaking last month at a Newtown public hearing.

That is part of the reason, Bye told members of the legislature's Insurance and Real Estate Committee Tuesday, that she worked on a bill to require firearms owners to purchase personal liability and self-defense insurance.

"I think that there are community risks affiliated with having a gun, just like there are community risks affiliated with driving a car, which can be a deadly vehicle," she said.

But for the most part, Bye was on her own at Tuesday's hearing before the committee. The majority of people who testified said driving a car was a privilege, whereas owning a gun was a right under the Constitution. They also said requiring insurance would mean law-abiding citizens had to pay more.

A representative for the insurance industry said accidents due to firearms are already covered under homeowner's or renter's insurance. The insurance industry would not cover intentional, willful or criminal acts, said Susan Giacalone, counsel for the Insurance Association of Connecticut.

According to the bill, someone would need to obtain self-defense insurance to provide coverage for civil and criminal defense costs in the event the person used a firearm in self-defense. If gun owners did not maintain this insurance, according to the bill, they would be guilty of a Class A misdemeanor.

"To me, that is one of the most egregious parts of this bill," said state Rep. Rob Sampson, R-Wolcott. "That we are going to require people to have insurance for their actions in self-defense."

Sampson said he has previously introduced legislation to expand Connecticut's "castle doctrine," which permits someone to use reasonable force, including deadly force, to defend property, themselves or another person.

Bye said if the committee decided to strip the self-defense part of the bill, she would understand.

"My big, broad-based goal for the chairs to understand is that we look seriously at requiring gun owners to have insurance because … we know that they cause injury," she said.

People are dying from guns, and there are costs associated with these deaths, she said. Insurance companies could determine if people were a high risk, she suggested. For example, if they had incidents of abuse in the home, they would pay higher insurance rates, Bye said.

If the state were to mandate insurance for intentional or criminal acts, the government would have to provide coverage because the insurance companies would not take those high-risk people, Giacalone said. The state would end up doing more harm to the liability landscape of Connecticut, she said.

John Hohenwarter, state liaison for the National Rife Association, said the NRA does offer insurance products but that insurance companies do the underwriting.

Scott Ennis of New London, founder of Disabled Americans for Firearms Rights, said members of his organization were "seriously concerned" about the liability insurance requirement.

"This bill will cause an unjust financial burden on thousands of disabled residents wanting to protect themselves by the ability of their Second Amendment right," Ennis said.

The police cannot be everywhere protecting everyone all the time, he said. In this tough economy, many people are living on fixed incomes, and adding another financial burden to people who are protecting themselves is extremely discriminatory, Ennis said.

David Godbout of East Lyme said he was opposed to the bill because its primary goal is registration.

"And the ultimate goal, I think, is confiscation," Godbout said.

Jake McGuigan, director of government relations for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, said he was also concerned with mandating this type of insurance because insurance companies could force mandates and safety standards and tell gun owners what they can own.

Coalition of Connecticut Sportsmen representative James Crook said the bill raised many questions.

"What happens if I am unable to purchase coverage?" he said. "What happens to those who can't afford insurance? How will it be enforced?"

These questions need to be answered before there is any further consideration of the bill, he said.

j.somers@theday.com

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