Florida is one of the southern tier of states in which the right to bear arms is considered fundamental. But recently, Citizens Property Insurance, the state-run insurer of last resort, sent out a questionnaire asking homeowners about their gun ownership. And another home insurer, Castle Key Insurance, allegedly canceled a policy because the policyholder had ammunition in the home.
These actions raise questions that have been at the forefront of the gun debate: Does gun ownership make a home more dangerous? And should homeowners with weapons and ammunition pay more in insurance premiums based on the number and type of guns they own?
There are an estimated 300 million guns in the hands of about 50 million households nationwide. Among the biggest sellers recently are rifles modeled on the military's M-16, along with semiautomatic pistols, both of which can have large capacity magazines.
But the issue isn't just safety. Gun-rights groups such as the National Rifle Association (NRA) view this kind of "questionnaire" as both a way to penalize gun owners with higher premiums and as a backdoor way to find out who owns guns.
So it's not surprising that these Florida insurers got an immediate rap on the knuckles from the pro-gun and mostly Republican legislature in the Sunshine State. Charging that property insurers were abusing gun owners, the state's senate and house passed a bill outlawing this kind of "discrimination" by insurance companies against gun owners. The bill now goes to Gov. Rick Scott for his probable signature.
A law without a purpose
Insurance companies say Florida has created a law without a purpose. "This is a bunch of malarkey," says spokesperson Loretta Worters of the Insurance Information Institute (III), which represents the property casualty industry. There's no "discrimination" against gun owners, she claims.
Apart from these few questionnaires, most of which probably went unanswered, insurers have in fact shied away from doing battle with gun owners, who can switch insurance companies if they don't like the insurers' politics. Insurers want to make money, but even more, they want to avoid volatile political issues that could cause homeowners to cancel their policies.
And the NRA is not to be trifled with. It scored a major victory in 2008 when the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the right of law-abiding Americans to own guns as individuals rather than as part of a law enforcement or military unit. In Colorado, legislators who supported tough gun restrictions were recalled by an angry pro-gun electorate.
Guns no threat . . . to insurers
Insurers don't really have a reason to be in this fight. For one thing, home insurance policies typically contain a liability clause that specifically excludes coverage for injuries or damages caused by the intentional use of a gun.
And that covers a multitude of uses. Some examples: the shooting of a burglar, a suicide, or a spouse shooting the other spouse during an argument.
In the case of an accidental shooting, such as a child shooting a playmate, the typical liability limits are only $100,000, says Worters. The number of unintentional deaths is relatively small -- only about 600 a year, according to gun control advocates -- hardly enough to affect any insurer's bottom line.
Lock it up
But for those concerned about the potential of a multimillion-dollar lawsuit if their gun is involved in a shooting there are two alternatives. One is to raise your liability coverage to meet this possible threat, the same way you would add contents coverage if you had valuable art or jewelry on the premises. The other is to simply keep your guns locked up when not in use.
Surprisingly, half of gun-owning households don't lock up their weapons, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, including 40 percent of households with children under 18. The U.S. General Accounting Office estimates that nearly one in three unintentional deaths could be prevented by safety locks and an indicator that would show if a gun is loaded.
Although the NRA and other pro-gun groups take exception with some of our government's statistics, there's no doubt that keeping guns out of sight and locked up when not in use is a lot safer -- and smarter -- than paying for a $1 million liability rider on your homeowner's policy.
More than money
But money alone shouldn't dictate one's actions. Before I was born, a child killed a neighbor's son in the house next door. My dad was a hunter and owned guns, but he drummed a lesson into my head: "Don't point a gun, even a toy gun, at another person." And it's one of the best lessons I've ever learned.