In March 2012, Joe Balistreri was visiting his parents in Foster City, a suburban community on the San Francisco Bay. Early in the morning, he heard the front doorknob rattle, followed by a commotion around the side of the house. Someone had jumped the gate. Balistreri woke his father and asked for a gun. In the dark, he confronted a tall stranger who had entered the house through an unlocked garage door. Balistreri fired three rounds, one of which hit the intruder, Patrick O’Neil, high in the chest, between the clavicles.
But O’Neil didn’t die. He survived his injuries and sued Balistreri, who spent thousands defending himself in court. By O’Neil’s account, he wasn’t trying to rob anyone—his friends had left him asleep and intoxicated that night in a car they parked nearby. When he woke, he entered the wrong home. Balistreri, meanwhile, has become something of a cautionary tale among gun-rights advocates, after a local CBS affiliate ran a segment about his online campaign to raise $85,000 to cover his legal fees. Even though he won a favorable outcome in court, Balistreri remained saddled with debts four years later.
Enter the National Rifle Association. Stories like Balistreri’s have motivated some gun owners to purchase insurance policies that could cushion their financial burden in the event that they shoot someone. Such policies have been available for years, but last month the NRA announced a new insurance product, Carry Guard, which they marketed to their millions of members online and at their annual meeting in Atlanta. The idea of firearms liability insurance has been previously championed by gun safety advocates on the left, who envisioned insurance as an instrument of public safety that could encourage safer guns and safer behavior. As implemented by the NRA, though, firearms liability insurance has a different function—to insulate gun owners from the expense and other possible consequences of a shooting.
“We live in a litigious society,” explains Josh Powell, chief of staff and executive director of general operations for the NRA. “The bad guys come to your house and you gotta use your gun and then you end up paying a hundred thousand dollars to protect yourself.”
Powell explains that Carry Guard was created to accommodate the needs of a changing culture in the U.S., where more people carry concealed weapons. “There’s just been this incredible carry revolution that’s taken place over the past eight years, and you know, the NRA started it. We started this in Florida 35 or 36 years ago, passing the first concealed carry bill. And so this is really a response to that movement and our members saying ‘Hey, we need you guys to be the gold standard for training, liability insurance— everything concealed carry.’”
With similar language, the marketing campaign for Carry Guard emphasizes the “two pronged program” that offers “America’s most comprehensive coverage and training for those who carry a gun.” The campaign features a studio portrait of NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch, staring down the camera with glinting eyes, holding up her Carry Guard insurance card like an officer flashing a badge. “I will never carry a gun without carrying this,” the adjacent text proclaims. In an article for the NRA publication America’s First Freedom, Loesch recounts her memories raising young children in crime-ridden St. Louis. She says her neighbors were grateful that she always carried a gun while supervising the children outside, and often inquired about how they could also legally carry and join her in “standing watch” over the neighborhood. “If only NRA Carry Guard existed back then,” Loesch laments. “There was no one-stop training option I could recommend.” Moreover, “Without proper coverage, my neighbors risked very real financial and legal consequences if they were ever forced to the pull the trigger in self-defense, even if they did everything right.”
In all the Carry Guard marketing materials, the training and the liability insurance are presented as a package. It’s worth noting, though, that the “gold standard” Carry Guard training program doesn’t exist yet, and no training is required to purchase the insurance policy. Powell says that comprehensive Carry Guard training classes will be offered in selected cities later this summer, and will roll out nationwide thereafter. Fees for these classes have yet to be determined, but they are not included in the cost of the insurance.
On a training video on the Carry Guard website, Curriculum Development Director James Jarrett primes gun owners to imagine themselves surviving a violent confrontation, only to fall victim to a predatory judicial system. “I want you to think of it this way,” Jarrett says. “There is a whole team of lawyers attached to every bullet that leaves the barrel of your weapon. If the suspect goes down, even if you’re justified in shooting, I guarantee you the world is going to come crashing down on you.” The dramatizations of violence are strangely sanitary, depicting no injuries, no screaming and (curiously) no gunfire. A bloodless confrontation in a parking garage is followed by stock photos of a gavel and a courtroom. Jarrett is quick to acknowledge that he is not an attorney, and that these videos are “not intended as legal advice.”
Meanwhile, lawmakers in Massachusetts, Washington, North Carolina, New York and Hawaii have introduced bills this year that would require gun owners to carry liability insurance. Government-mandated firearms insurance shouldn’t be confused with the NRA’s insurance product—the former protects gun victims from bearing the costs of their wounds; the latter protects gun bearers from carrying the costs of their wounded. Mandatory firearms insurance has been an academic concept for 30 years, and will likely remain merely theoretical—the gun lobby has defeated every proposal, in even the bluest statehouses. The NRA’s optional insurance is available today in all 50 states. It might lessen the financial burden on individual gun owners involved in a shooting, but Carry Guard isn’t a credible answer to the staggering public costs of gun injuries, which are overwhelmingly borne by taxpayers.
By one estimate, the economic impact of U.S. domestic gun violence reaches $229 billion per year. To understand the long-term costs of a single gunshot injury, I spoke with Joseph Jaskolka, who was struck by celebratory gunfire in the first moments of New Year’s Day, 1999. The bullet is still lodged deep in his brain, a bright white kernel on an X-ray of his skull. He’s endured dozens of surgeries to his brain and eyes, and received specialized care for migraine headaches and gastrointestinal problems. The complications cascade—he’s picked up serious infections during treatment, including a drug-resistant strain of staphylococcus that put him in the hospital for nearly three weeks.
Joseph, 30, speaks slowly and deliberately, but there’s excitement in his voice when he tells me about the semester he’s just completed at college, studying criminal justice. “I like it,” he says. “It’s a long process because I can only take a class or two at a time.”
His parents drive him to campus in a specialized van that can accommodate his motorized wheelchair (he’s owned three of them, each as expensive as a new sedan). The family home had to be remodeled, as well, with wider entrances and grab bars. Joseph’s father, Gregory, set aside the bills that accumulated month after month until finally he had an hours-long call with his health insurance provider in 2005. The woman he spoke to reviewed each bill with him, and calmed his concerns about what would be covered.
“When we were done with that rigmarole, I asked, ‘What kind of a figure do you have?’” Gregory recalls. “She said, ‘Are you ready?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, I’m ready.’ And she says ‘It’s a little over fifteen million dollars.’”
The costs of Joseph’s medical care are mostly billed to Medicaid. Financial support for Joseph’s other needs while navigating life with a debilitating gunshot injury can be elusive. “You have to find ways to figure out who can help pay for what,” Gregory says. “That’s a job unto itself.”
Various state and local agencies provide support to crime victims. But often those resources are neither sufficient to counterbalance the enormous costs of gun violence, nor available to everyone affected by it. Donna Bryan believes she would have received reimbursement through Florida’s Bureau of Victim Compensation for several expenses related to her daughter’s death, if that shooting had been considered a crime.
Donna’s daughter, Kathryn Hoover, was five months pregnant in July of 2014 when she accompanied her husband to visit his friend’s home in Brooksville, Florida. The friend, William DeHayes, showed the couple his collection of guns, twirling a .22-caliber revolver on his finger like a TV cowboy. When the gun discharged, a single bullet struck Kathryn in the head. She was flown by helicopter to an area hospital, where she died. Doctors performed an emergency C-section to deliver her son, Rehlin, who survived less than an hour.
“I paid for my daughter and grandson’s funeral,” Donna says. “And I got a big surprise.”
Because Rehlin had lived long enough to receive a birth certificate and death certificate, state and local laws stipulated separate gravesites for mother and son, as well as separate graves, each reinforced by concrete due to the area’s low elevation (near sea level). Donna couldn’t afford to bury her daughter and grandson, so she had them cremated. “We actually got pretty lucky,” Donna says, “because [the funeral home] gave us a break on the baby.”
Even so, Donna had to borrow money from other relatives to cover the costs of the two cremations, related county fees and a small memorial gathering. Other costs proceeding from the shooting included a six-figure invoice for the emergency helicopter flight (ultimately resolved by Medicaid); and ongoing psychological counseling for Kathryn’s older son, who lives with Donna.
Unintentional shootings often go unprosecuted, even when they result in death. The man who killed Kathryn, William DeHayes, was never charged in her death, though he did later serve a brief jail sentence for an unrelated incident that also involved misuse of a gun. Kathryn’s family pursued civil action against DeHayes, though they knew he didn’t have the means to pay a large settlement. “It really didn’t matter what the judge awarded,” Donna says. “‘Cause nobody would get anything.”
That kind of scenario is exactly what mandatory liability insurance for gun owners is intended to address. “Many people are injured all over the country on a daily basis by the negligent use of a firearm,” says Massachusetts State Rep. David Linsky, the lead sponsor of legislation on the issue. “They need a way to recover, and if the owner of the firearm had to be insured, they would have a place to look, for at least financial compensation.”
Owning a gun should be like owning a car, Linsky argues—with the insurance policies to match. “If we had mandatory liability insurance, there could be different rates, depending on the type of firearm an individual owned; whether or not they had gun safes; whether or not they practiced safe storage of guns and ammunition in their home; whether or not they took training classes or safety classes in order to become a safer user of firearms,” he says.
By way of analogy, Linsky gives me a brief history of the evolution of auto safety, from seat belts to laminated glass windshields to airbags and crumple zones. “The insurance companies have a financial interest in making that happen,” he says. “So, we think we can make firearm ownership safer. And the marketplace would respond.”
There’s a huge problem with Linsky’s analogy, though. With car insurance, premiums tend to be lower on a vehicle that has the latest safety features, like anti-lock breaks or passenger-side airbags. Insurers call this “risk-based pricing,” and it’s meant to incentivize consumers and manufacturers to prioritize safety.
But there’s a big catch to implementing risk-based pricing when it comes to guns. To figure out what to charge policyholders, gun insurers would need to know what sort of risk an individual represents, and—just as crucially—they would need to have actuarial data about the larger population in order to know which factors are risky and which aren’t. That’s a challenge, because the gun lobby has worked diligently for decades to obscure data on gun violence, gun use and gun ownership. Is a person who owns 20 guns riskier than a person who owns one? Does a licensed concealed carrier have a lower risk of accidents than a hunter who keeps his weapons at home? Nobody really knows. We don’t even have reliable data on how many Americans are injured by guns each year.
I asked Lockton Affinity, a company that collaborated with the NRA and Chubb to create Carry Guard, how they were able to calculate an appropriate premium to charge for the various levels of firearms liability coverage. A Lockton representative responded, explaining that he couldn’t share that proprietary underwriting information.
For the NRA’s own Carry Guard insurance, applicants don’t need to provide any information about themselves to get a quote. There are three tiers of coverage—bronze, silver and gold—priced at $155, $255 and $360 per year, respectively. The rates don’t depend on the number or type of guns that you own, nor where you intend to carry them, nor your level of training or experience. Applicants are never even asked whether they actually own any firearms or have a license to carry. The pricing treats all gun owners as if they represent the same level of risk.
Underwriters do, of course, specify in insurance policies what scenarios they are willing to cover and what they aren’t. There’s some dissonance here, because the NRA’s lobbying activity seems to promote (or at least protect) some of the same activities their insurance product excludes from coverage:
The NRA has opposed regulation of ammunition manufacturing, but Carry Guard insurance specifically excludes coverage in the event that a reloaded (remanufactured) bullet explodes.
The NRA has lobbied against EPA regulation of lead ammunition, but the Carry Guard insurance specifically excludes coverage for lead poisoning from bullets.
The NRA has opposed “child access prevention” laws that would require gun owners to keep their weapons in a safe, but the Carry Guard insurance excludes coverage in the event that a “resident family member” (such as a child) of the insured causes bodily harm or property damage in the home.
The NRA supports laws to allow gun owners to carry loaded firearms in their vehicles without a license, but the Carry Guard insurance excludes coverage in the event a gun is discharged in a car.
The Carry Guard policy also excludes coverage in the event of a civil war or armed rebellion (which, to be fair, is standard language in many insurance documents), but it’s a bit incongruous with the NRA’s narrative about the purpose of the Second Amendment.
None of these exclusions is obvious to someone visiting the NRA Carry Guard website. “There are consumer protection issues here that are a little troubling,” says Seth Chandler, a professor at the University of Houston who teaches insurance law. “There are lots of details that someone who was serious about this insurance would want to know, and I don’t see them being addressed in the FAQ. To me, the website is more of a political statement than a statement about insurance policies.”
The Carry Guard website is likewise vague in describing the training. Before buying a policy, prospective Carry Guard customers are told that they’ll have immediate access to a video curriculum that will teach them about the “rights and responsibilities” of carrying a gun. Beyond the member login, the videos turn out to be just a half-dozen episodes, each less than four minutes long. These are organized by subject, but seem to make the same handful of redundant points. Chief among these is the distinction between “self-defense” and “retribution” (illustrated by a story about a dog killing a cat). Narrator James Jarrett also stresses the different perspectives various parties might have during a shooting. You might realize that when a potential attacker merely shifts his weight, that could be a “threat marker” and reason enough to “launch a preemptive strike,” Jarrett explains. But eyewitnesses will probably misinterpret such a strike as an unprovoked attack, he warns. “Therefore it is incumbent upon you that you know how you articulate these threat markers in a way that, not just the prosecutor, but the people in that jury box can understand it and relate to it.” The core emphases of the video training, if there are any, seem to be caution and restraint—don’t shoot someone unless you have to, and be careful about what you say afterward. “The law is essentially a rhetorical game,” Jarrett says.
While they await the launch of the in-person training program, there’s a mailing list to which policyholders can add their names for notifications about future classes in their area. At the moment, the website invites qualified instructors to apply to teach classes for Carry Guard—a timely opportunity for shooting teachers in several states who might soon be out of work. Pending legislation (generally supported by the NRA) might eliminate the mandatory training classes that were previously required to obtain a concealed carry license.
This is not to say that the Carry Guard policy is worthless. Who else but the NRA would, in the event you shoot someone, help to bail you out of jail, pay for the cleanup of “stains and biohazards” in your home, hook you up with a lawyer and even pay for your psychological therapy?