Redefining Gun Owner Liability

Article Posted: November 13, 2013

Redefining Gun Owner Liability
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Zimmerman fate imposes by far the most extreme limits of liability we will face, which embraces criminal liability as well as negligence and a whole array of civil damages that can be attached. Ultimately, subjecting yourself to these levels of risk is a personal matter and must be balanced against the threat of harm you are defending against.

This is something to build on since there are some actions you can take that will significantly reduce that risk. Your first responsibility is a moral and ethical one that involves much personal reflection, and should be addressed every time you carry. You can consider limiting the times you carry to occasions when there really is a threat. For example, avoid areas where crime rates are high. You should also avoid carrying whenever "you" are the risky element because you have issues with anger, are emotionally charged, involved in an argument, prone to anger or rage, or are embroiled in some kind of personal or legal conflict. You should also avoid carrying whenever your mental or physical condition could impair your performance. If you can't hit the intended assailant, your actions could take out an innocent life.

If you carry, you need to take an approved gun-safety course and then re-qualify on a routine basis to maintain the basic skills that are needed. For the main reason above, if you are unable to qualify you should not carry under any circumstances.

There is one nuance to Zimmerman risk that you should at least consider. After the trial, some of the jurors indicated that Zimmerman may not have exercised good judgment under the situation that confronted him. This speaks both to his frame of mind as well as to his "level of readiness". The question that begs for an answer is whether the same result would have occurred if Zimmerman had "not been carrying" or if he did not have such easy access to deadly force. The question is important in understanding the true nature of Zimmerman risk when we carry.

Deadly force can only be our absolute last resort - regardless of what the law provides. This is reinforced by the FBI statistics which identified only 232 justifiable homicides in 2010, Re-framed a bit differently, it suggests that we can reduce liability by making our access to deadly force more difficult. The idea is that if we can downgrade our level of readiness we will be less likely to rely on deadly force when such force is not justifiable.

Law enforcement personnel recognize a range of conditions from "empty" to "ready-to-fire" that describes the immediate status of a firearm. Down-grading the condition of your carry weapon makes deadly force less available by requiring an additional step before you are ready to fire. This potentially buys that little bit of extra time to make a "better" decision when you think you need it. To offset possible adverse risks, down-graded carry is combined with a practice of active awareness that keeps us in tune with changing conditions.

Maintaining an active state of awareness is practical for personal safety all-the-time and allows us to respond and upgrade our level of readiness based on prevailing conditions at any given time. The objective is to make the casual display and/or exercise of deadly force more difficult when emotions are high or out of control - but the conditions do not justify your "preferred" response. Access to deadly force is still available if it really is needed. Increasing your level of awareness eliminates surprise and allows you to make a better decision because we are better prepared.

Other measures you can take to reduce Liability

Other measures you should consider to reduce financial liability if you carry include signing up for pre-paid legal services. These plans allow you to retain the services of legal counsel in the event something ever happens. There are also a few insurance companies that offer umbrella policies that cover personal liability, however most situations where you would need to apply deadly force are usually excluded.

A few insurance companies offer carry-insurance and can be located on the internet. Terms and premiums will vary. There are some gun-control advocates have proposed requiring all gun owners to carry a $1-million liability policy, however such policies do not necessarily exist at the present time.

Develop a personal "Liability-Reduction" Plan

There are many things you can do that will limit your liability as a gun owner and whenever you carry. For example, you are responsible for understanding the specific laws of your state and local community - even if they change. You are required to obey laws that are in effect even if you disagree.

If you maintain weapons for home defense be sure you know how you will use them. A shotgun has enough power to penetrate sheetrock with enough power to seriously injure someone on the other side - like sleeping family members. Put together a home defense plan by considering how an intruder will gain access to your house, where you have effective cover and concealment, and how you can retreat without the exercise of deadly force.

Your liability can also be reduced just by getting rid of guns you no longer use of need. The fewer guns you own the easier it is to control them. Guns that aren't used get forgotten and increase your potential liability. Maintain accountability for everything you own and keep track of the condition (loaded, un-chambered, empty, locked, disassembled, etc). Unless your guns are stored under lock and key, you should always know the condition of every gun you own. If you can't remember what you have you should consider safe storage where they can be maintained under lock and key to prevent casual access in your absence.

Adhere to all safety measures any time you handle a firearm. Manufacturer instructions for what you own, or something very similar, can usually be found on the internet provide proper storage for guns, ammunition, supplies, accessories, and other gun-related items.

Keep tabs on family members and anyone else who has access to guns you own. Limit access or personally supervise use when they aren't up to par because of mental, social, or physical issues.

Do the same for yourself. Take an honest assessment of your mental and physical condition and if needed, identify a surrogate who will say "No" if he or she needs to.

Final perspective

Guns are cool and are a dynamic part of our pop culture. They also represent an enormous amount of personal and financial liability that you may not see on the surface. You are liable for essentially every action you take and are responsible for the consequences every time you pull the trigger. You are equally responsible even when your gun isn't in use. That liability can add up quickly in fines, attorney fees, court costs, medical bills, damages to property, and other costs associated with defending a claim. You can be looking at $10,000 to defend even a simple civil matter. For a criminal action you can expect to spend upwards of $100,000. You don't want to know what George Zimmerman's costs were.

For every gun you own you need to understand the implications of Newtown Liability. Any time you pick up a gun or carry a weapon capable of exerting deadly force you need to consider the consequences of the Zimmerman Fate.

Author: Carleton P. Edmunds, J.D.

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