4 Things Gun Owners Should Know About Insurance

After several mass shootings have roiled the country over the past year, every dimension of gun ownership is receiving closer attention, including the responsibility and potential liabilities of being a gun owner.

Below, we cover some key questions about gun ownership and insurance, including those around the gun-owner’s liability if someone steals or is injured by their weapon, and whether their homeowners or other policies may cover that exposure. These questions deserve close examination if you’re among the three-in-10 Americans who own a gun, according to the Pew Research Center, or the additional one-in-10 who don't personally own one but live with someone who does.

Does owning a gun increase insurance liability or premiums?

Probably not. Guns aren't of particular interest to insurance companies, and they don't typically factor firearms into their home insurance premiums. In fact, many insurance companies—such as Esurance—don't even require you to disclose whether you possess firearms when applying for a policy. In some cases, companies are barred from discriminating against policyholders for the possesion of a gun, as is the case for insurers in Florida.

However, there’s a potential catch: Even if you don't have to disclose that you own a gun to your insurance company, that doesn’t mean they will cover every claim that might be made in association with that firearm. If someone is injured by a gun that you own, you will usually be held liable. Whether you will be covered in such cases will depend on the incident.

Are accidental shootings covered for liability?

Yes, but with caveats. If a guest in your home is injured due to an accidental shooting, that individual or their family could usually file a lawsuit against the homeowner, who could then submit a claim under their home insurance policy's liability coverage. This coverage also would also extend to accidental shootings that occur outside of your house, such as a misfire that occurs while hunting—as long as the incident isn't classified as a crime.

However, what constitutes a crime varies by state. For example, simply storing your gun in a place where minors could find it may be considered a crime in some states. Similarly, coverage for accidents may or may not be denied if any drugs or alcohol were involved in the incident.

"If it is truly an accident, you're probably covered," says Peter Kochenburger, deputy director of the Insurance Law Center at the UConn School of Law. "But the precise wording of your policy can make a big difference to whether an injury or death caused by a gun is ruled an accident or not."

For covered incidents, it's important to know your home insurance policy's limits. If the liability limit on your policy is only $150,000, that figure may not be enough to cover the total cost of legal fees and medical expenses should someone file an accidental-injury lawsuit against you.

In that case, a personal umbrella policy may provide the supplemental coverage necessary. While the percentage of gun owners that will actually need such coverage is small, an umbrella policy could provide liability coverage above your primary policy's limits for a host of liability related issues.

Bear in mind, though, that you and any family members who live in your house will not receive any coverage for medical expenses if one of you is shot. Instead, such coverage may come from your medical or life insurance policy.

Is shooting someone in self-defense typically covered?

Coverage will vary by the facts of the case and by state laws, since some jurisdictions have "Stand-Your-Ground" laws that give greater legal leeway to gun owners who feel under threat to shoot in self-defense.

Home insurance companies use different wording to outline their insurance obligations, but most include an outright exclusion on coverage for injuries caused intentionally by the policyholder—even in cases of self-defense. However, some policies include an explicit self-defense exception, says Kochenburger. "Even if it does, it's still going to beg the question, 'was this an act of self defense?' It's better to have [a self-defense exception] than not, but it's no guarantee."

For example, if you shoot a burglar in your home, they may choose to file a civil lawsuit against you. Whether this lawsuit will be covered will rely heavily upon the details of your case and your state. If it is determined in the trial that you acted with criminal intent, or that you exceeded your state's standard for reasonable force, your home insurance company would likely deny coverage. "Liability insurance almost never covers defense fees associated with a criminal prosecution," says Kochenburger.

To fill this gap in coverage, insurance companies offer standalone policies to insure guns and protect individuals who act in self-defense. For example, gun owners can purchase up to $2.25 million in coverage, along with training courses, from the United States Concealed Carry Association (USCCA). The future of these policies is uncertain, though, as an increasing number of individuals petition companies to sever ties with the NRA and other gun-advocacy groups. One such company, Chubb Insurance, informed the NRA more than three months ago that they intended to discontinue their NRA-branded Carry Guard insurance program, which they underwrote in association with insurance brokerage Lockton Affinity. Chubb announced the discontinuation after lobbying by the organization Guns Down America, which called the Carry Guard program "murder insurance."

The future of such programs may depend on the much larger debate about firearms, according to Kochenburger, who sees the companies in question as “naturally sensitive to public opinion. But I wouldn't be surprised if the NRA or other gun-advocacy groups could find another insurance company [to underwrite their policies].”

When asked whether he would recommend gun owners purchase policies such as Carry Guard, Kochenburger recommended gun owners to review their homeowners policies. "If you engage in an act of self-defense, there may be a hole in your homeowners or renters insurance policy, if don't have a self-defense clause. On the other hand, what is the likelihood that you'll ever have this situation? It's really small. It's a great product to sell because the perception of risk is much greater than the actual risk."

What if someone steals your gun?

Some homeowners may wonder how they'll be held liable if someone were to steal their gun and then injure themselves or someone else. Liability in such a case is inherently nuanced, and may depend on where the gun was stored and how the thief discharges the weapon.

For example, if you leave your gun in an unlocked car, and someone then uses that gun to commit a crime, you likely would not be held liable. In that scenario, the thief's criminal intent may outweigh your own negligence. However, if you leave your gun in an unlocked car and a local teen finds it, then accidentally discharges it and injures somebody, you could be held at least partially liable for negligence. Whether your policy would cover you in such a case would depend on your state laws and insurer. "If you negligently leave out your gun and someone steals it, you could be accused of negligence. But that negligence may still be covered."

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