The gray area of guns and car insurance

Nick DiUlio

It seems you can’t turn on the TV, radio or computer these days without coming across news about guns, gun ownership or gun legislation. Throughout this ongoing national conversation, gun owners new and old have undoubtedly reflected on how they store their firearms. But have they thought about the way they transport them? And what’s the connection between guns and car insurance?

For instance, if you’ve got a gun in your car or truck, does car insurance cover you if it’s stolen? Or what if the gun goes off accidentally? Does insurance cover any damage or injuries?

Experts say gun owners need to know the answers to these questions before getting in a car with a firearm.

Stolen from the car

Gun theft isn’t necessarily a common occurrence, but it is a serious one.

According to a November 2012 report by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, about 1.4 million firearms were stolen during home burglaries and other property crimes between 2005 and 2010. That’s an average of about 232,400 firearms stolen each year, including 172,000 swiped during burglaries and 60,300 stolen during other property crimes like auto thefts.

Of the guns stolen each year from homes and vehicles, at least 80 percent are not recovered up to six months after the crime. The Bureau of Justice Statistics points out that most of these stolen firearms eventually end up on the black market.

Many of these ripped-off gun owners are not properly insured, which means that not only do they lose their firearms, but they also lose the money they spent to purchase them.

“Sadly, a lot of gun owners don’t find out they aren’t insured until it’s too late,” says Jeff Hewitt, program manager at Lockton Affinity, which offers ArmsCare Plus Firearms Insurance through the National Rifle Association (NRA). “People assume their home or auto insurance will cover theft (of a gun), but that’s often not the case.”

So what can gun owners do to make sure firearms are covered if they’re in a vehicle?

“First and foremost, the best insurance for your firearm is to make sure it’s concealed, stored safely, and locked within the vehicle,” says Ian Underwood, a gun safety and shooting instructor.

Even if precautions are taken and a gun still gets pilfered, who covers the cost? Not your car insurance, says Kevin Lynch, assistant professor of insurance for The American College in Pennsylvania.

“Car insurance isn’t intended to cover your personal property,” Lynch says. “Theft of things like a laptop, a camera or a firearm is going to be covered by your homeowner’s or renter’s policy.”

The right amount of homeowner’s insurance

While a basic homeowner’s, condo or renter’s policy should provide enough protection for most of your possessions, it may not do the trick for certain valuables like firearms, says Jeff McCarthy, manager of Harrington Insurance Agency in Massachusetts.

That’s because insurers strictly limit what’s covered. For instance, most standard homeowner’s policies provide between $1,000 and $2,500 worth of coverage for firearms.

“And that’s not $1,000 per item, but $1,000 for the entire claim,” McCarthy says. “So if you’ve got an expensive or antique firearm, or several firearms worth thousands of dollars, the basic policy probably won’t be enough to cover their theft.”

McCarthy says the simplest (and typically least expensive) solution is to buy an endorsement, or add-on, that will upgrade your homeowner’s, condo or renter’s policy. Most insurers offer them, and they’re marketed under various names. An endorsement (sometimes called an enhancement) to a homeowner’s policy might offer $5,000 worth of protection for firearms, $5,000 for rare and expensive jewelry, and some coverage for antiques and fine arts.

Endorsements cost anywhere from $2 to $15 a year for every $1,000 of insured value. So an endorsement on $5,000 worth of firearms means an additional $10 to $75 a year on your homeowner’s, condo or renter’s insurance premium.

What if the gun goes off?

The notion that a gun would accidentally fire itself is absurd, Underwood says.

“This is a little like asking: If your car starts accidentally and runs into something, would insurance cover it?” Underwood says. “No one would ask that, because everyone knows that cars don’t start accidentally. What many people don’t understand is that guns don’t go off accidentally. For a gun to go off, someone has to pick it up and then pull the trigger. Then it’s not an accident. It’s negligence.”

Insurance attorney Shane Fischer disagrees – somewhat. While he’s never heard of a gun accidentally going off in a car, he says it’s conceivable.

For instance, a driver may hit a pothole, jostling the gun inside the car. As a result, the gun may bump into something else in the car that causes the trigger to pull back, firing the weapon and injuring someone in the vehicle.

“At that point, the injured person has to prove that the injury arose out of the use of the motor vehicle, and that’s going to be a tough sell,” Fischer says. “The insurance company will argue there was no connection between the driving and the injury. Merely being injured while in a car does not necessarily mean that the injury will be covered by auto insurance.”

The best insurance, Fischer adds, is being careful about how you store your firearm inside a vehicle – which, under most circumstances, means keeping the firearm unloaded.

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