Redefining Gun Owner Liability

Article Posted: November 13, 2013

Gun Owner Liability
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Two events occurred in 2012 that have shaped and re-defined our liability as gun owners. February 16, 2012 was the date that forever changed the lives of George M. Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin. The incident that unveiled early that evening catalyzed an already heated debate over gun safety in America. It was around 7:00 PM when Zimmerman, coordinator for the Twin Lakes neighborhood watch, first encountered Trayvon Martin. Martin took off running when he saw Zimmerman and Zimmerman followed in pursuit. As the events unfolded, the incident evolved into an altercation that resulted in Martin's death. Zimmerman was ultimately charged with second degree murder but was later acquitted in a trial that captured our attention in the summer of 2013. What Zimmerman exposes is the extreme liability we face any time we carry.

Then on December 14, of 2012, we learned of the tragic shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT. Adam Lanza, a 20-year old male shot 20 children and six adults after shooting and killing his own mother earlier in the day. The grief and outrage following this terrible shooting re-ignited that still-simmering debate over gun control but did nothing to add to our understanding of why these events keep occurring, or how to keep them from happening again. Again, we face substantial liability as we ask where our responsibility lies in preventing still another Newtown.

What solutions have been presented? More Government-sponsored gun control, gun bans, background checks, and privilege taxes. These simply haven't worked in the past considering that Connecticut's gun laws were already among the toughest in the nation.

There is however a simple and effective solution that will work. Let's face it if you own or carry a gun in today's social and political climate you are exposed to a tremendous amount of liability that you might not even be aware of.

The key for minimizing that liability is in understanding where the risks are and how to avoid them. As individual gun owners and enthusiasts, we already have the power to prevent another Newtown from occurring and can greatly reduce the chances of exposing ourselves to what has been described as the "Zimmerman fate".

Liability From Negligence?

A large portion of our liability comes from negligence, which is simply defined as failing to meet an appropriate standard of care. When that standard is applied to gun ownership and carry, the expectations are already set very high. For gun owners, that standard is set very high because of the deadly force that is involved. There is already a sense of "strict" liability associated with lawful activities, meaning that the shooter is ultimately responsible for any damages that result from his or her use. Some gun control measures have even suggested burdening gun owners with requirements to maintain large limits of liability insurance to ensure that any damages to life, health or property will be covered.

As a gun owner you can even be liable if your gun is just sitting around and someone gets injured as a result. Guns naturally attract attention, especially to youngsters. If your gun is in an unsafe condition (loaded) or equally "attractive" bullets are nearby you can be liable for any injuries even if your gun and bullets are hidden or out of sight. Leaving a loaded weapon out in the open can even be viewed as child endangerment or criminal negligence.

In a negligence action you can be held liable for any monetary damages - damages to property; injuries; medical bills, or even the values of a lost life. Willful negligence can add extra damages for pain and suffering or can include punitive damages administered by the court to "send a message" to others.

In addition to negligence you have the legal responsibility to obey any (and all) laws regarding gun ownership, carry, and use. Failure to do is direct negligence and exposes you to criminal sanctions that include fines, imprisonment, or loss of basic rights because of a conviction.

Newtown and Zimmerman focus us on two specific areas where we are exposed to unreasonable levels of risk and liability. The good news is that there are ways to reduce the risks and lower the amount of liability we are exposed to.

Newtown Liability

Newtown is all about controlling the firearms we currently own and use. Moreover, Newtown is about "who" has access to guns we are responsible for. Here, the focus for reducing liability is on physical control. A closet and a $10.00 lock set may be all you need to prevent another Newtown from happening. Any weapon can be rendered inherently safe either by disabling its operation or storing in a safe (secure) condition. With the possible exception of dropping something on your foot, I know of no incidents where a properly locked firearm has seriously injured someone. Those ugly gun locks actually look pretty good when you consider the consequences if your six-year-old discovers your unsecured Glock when you aren't around.

The real issue with Newtown is keeping guns out of the hands of someone who may not be at their fullest mental or physical capacity - including ourselves. This is also something we can address. As parents and guardians, we are in the best position to understand when our kids may be at risk. We are negligent if we don't! That lockable closet adds an important safety factor that could make the difference. Reducing liability is simple. Keep all guns unloaded, locked, and securely stored. Keep any ammo in a separate area that is also controlled to prevent unsupervised access. Then control what you own. If you maintain a weapon for personal defense, you need to maintain it in constant possession - no exceptions.

Your children may be trustworthy - but their friends and acquaintances may be a different matter! Children are naturally curious and may look for "treasure" when left to their own creative inclinations. Young adults are also plagued with rushes of hormones, anxiety, stress, and emotions that don't need to be mixed guns. If there are questions or concerns the key is to simply limit access.

What you probably haven't seen in all the statistics advocates use to support more gun control is that two thirds of the gun-related deaths that occur each year are the result of gun-assisted suicides. (CDC, 2010). These risks begin during adolescence and extend through mid-life meaning that we, as gun owners, are a big part of our own problem. This brings us to the "bigger" picture painted by Newtown, which is extending those controls to everyone in our household, including ourselves. If that shoe fits, don't be afraid to wear it. Just find someone you can trust who will say "No" when you are the one who isn't up to par.

Zimmerman Fate

Zimmerman represents a much more serious liability that inures every time we carry for self-defense. This has been referred to as the "Zimmerman fate". When George Zimmerman pulled the trigger, both parties lost their lives - one was permanent, one is figurative. While Zimmerman was found "not guilty" of criminal conduct under Florida's "stand-your-ground" laws, he still faces numerous legal battles in Civil court plus the emotional stress he will carry the rest of his life.

A poor economy coupled with increasing crime rates has spawned much interest in carry for self-defense. Most states allow some form of carry, usually with the caveat that use of deadly force is not justifiable unless used as an absolute "last-resort". In 2010, the FBI reported 1.2 million violent crimes but identified only 232 cases of "justifiable homicide". In addition, a report by legallyarmed.com estimates that approximately 250,000 carry permits have been issued in the US. The raw numbers suggest that less than one out of every thousand permitees encounters a situation where the use of deadly force is appropriate.

Immediate access to a weapon capable of exerting deadly force can have disastrous impact on your liability. Pulling a gun in the heat of anger easily translates to aggravated assault, attempted murder, or reckless endangerment, any of which will get you in serious trouble with law enforcement. Pulling the trigger immediately exposes you to the "Zimmerman fate, which we all should recognize following the trial in summer of 2013.

Author: Carleton P. Edmunds, J.D.

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