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Our Opinion: State bill misfires on safety and takes aim at gun owners

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Under the guise of preventing mass shootings, North Carolina lawmakers tried to chip away at the Second Amendment this week.

State Rep. Christy Clark, D-Mecklenburg, called a Thursday press conference at the General Assembly to introduce the Gun Violence Prevention Act, a grab bag of restrictions on gun rights that range from the ineffectual to the unconstitutional.

Among other provisions, the bill would require all gun owners to purchase firearm liability insurance, ban the sale or possession of bump stocks and trigger cranks, raise the age to purchase so-called assault weapons from 18 to 21 and require permits for the purchase of long guns in addition to handguns.

Insurers could pay damages to victims of accidental shootings and may also pay legal costs for insured gun owners who fire a weapon in presumed self-defense and face criminal prosecution or lawsuits. Some gun owners choose to buy insurance for their own peace of mind, and the National Rifle Association partners with an insurer to sell NRA-branded policies.

Proponents compare firearm insurance to car insurance, which is already a requirement here and in most states. But operating a motor vehicle on public roads is considered a privilege, while keeping and bearing arms is a constitutional right. Government can and already does impose more restrictions on driving than owning a gun.

Also known as House Bill 86, the Gun Violence Prevention Act would mandate a minimum of $100,000 in liability coverage. Premiums are far cheaper than those for car insurance, but they would disproportionately pinch low-income gun owners who may live in crime-prone neighborhoods and have the greatest need to own a firearm for home defense.

“Insurance policies cover accidents, not intentional crimes, and criminals with illegal guns will just evade the requirement,” David B. Rifkin Jr. and Andrew M. Grossman wrote in a 2013 Wall Street Journal op-ed. “The real purpose is to make guns less affordable for law-abiding citizens and thereby reduce private gun ownership. Identical constitutionally suspect logic explains proposals to tax the sale of bullets at excessive rates.”

There’s also the quandary of risk compensation — just as studies show seat belts and anti-lock brakes make the average driver more aggressive, gun owners might feel their trigger fingers grow itchier if they believe insurance will lessen the consequences of an accidental or wrongful shooting. Requiring every gun owner to be insured may actually increase danger.

As for banning bump stocks, the Trump administration already issued a federal regulation that makes them illegal beginning next month. Several states have passed redundant laws. Apart from outlawing the sale of new devices, making them illegal to possess is problematic. Few owners have voluntarily turned in their bump stocks. Will federal agents ferret out the accessories and confiscate them by force?

Courts have deemed pistol purchase permit requirements to be lawful. It remains to be seen whether imposing similar restrictions on the sale of ordinary hunting rifles would survive Second Amendment scrutiny. As with handguns, criminals who want long guns will simply steal them or buy them on the black market.

Clark is a freshman legislator who previously served as state director for the gun control group Moms Demand Action. Joining her as primary sponsors are Reps. Marcia Morey of Durham County, Pricey Harrison of Guilford County and Shelly Willingham of Edgecombe County.

On its filing date, the bill had a total of 12 sponsors, all Democrats. The presence of House Democratic whip Deb Butler’s name on the legislation could signal it has party leaders’ backing.

Many North Carolinians — and indeed, most gun owners — are sympathetic to reasonable reforms such as enhanced background checks, but this bill is no common-sense compromise. The insurance requirement is a gargantuan government power grab that misfires on curbing gun violence and instead takes aim at law-abiding Tar Heels.

Fortunately, its chances in the Republican-controlled General Assembly are nil. That should give little comfort to the many Democrats who own guns for hunting and home protection and would rightly bristle at an insurance mandate.

The House Democratic Caucus and N.C. Democratic Party must abandon this paternalistic push. Claiming to represent the disadvantaged can’t be reconciled with a bill that would make poor people pay a premium in order to lawfully own a gun. Don’t they deserve to feed their families through hunting and keep handguns to defend those families from intruders?

As the sad legacy of poll taxes taught us, putting a price tag on the exercise of a constitutional right is always wrong.

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