(The Trace) — First, the National Rifle Association worked to let gun owners carry firearms in public. Then it fought to pass laws that say gun carriers can open fire to stop a perceived threat, even when retreat is possible.
Now that the NRA has expanded the legal right to armed self defense, it’s muscling into the niche industry that’s arisen to help Americans deal with the costly consequences of actually exercising it. This week, the group unveiled insurance plans that it says will help defray the legal costs that can arise from shooting another person.
As the NRA prepares to convene its annual meeting this weekend in Atlanta, the group is aggressively marketing the new product, which it calls Carry Guard . Offering three tiers of coverage, the service gives customers access to a financial and logistical backstop should they use their gun while claiming self defense. There’s liability insurance, ranging up to $150,000 in criminal-defense reimbursement and $1 million in a civil-liability protection for those opting for the top-shelf Gold package, which runs $31.95 per month. Members also get a 24-hour advice hotline and immediate access to money for bail and clean-up costs.
Carry Guard appears to replace an earlier, less comprehensive self-defense insurance policy offered by the NRA. The new package is built to meet or exceed the coverage plans that a number of quickly growing startups have brought to the gun world — even as comparable insurance products remain rare outside it.
“Covering potential criminal liability is certainly unusual,” Peter Kochernburger, the deputy director of the Insurance Law Center at the University of Connecticut, told The Trace. “But if people are concerned about their liability with respect to self-defense, they’re not wrong to get the coverage.”
Carry Guard also includes an instructional component, promising that members will have access to the “gold standard” of concealed-carry training programs. The three-day intensive course will launch in June.
“While the courses are open to anyone who legally owns a handgun, this training may not be for everyone,” the Carry Guard website reads. “It is designed for those who take carrying seriously.”
Through its political messaging and various media platforms, the NRA portrays for its members a world that is overrun with terrorists and violent criminals — a threat always around the next corner, and a gun on the hip the only guarantee of survival. Carry Guard allows the organization to profit from a mindset it actively engineered.
“If you can insure for an event that is very unlikely, but people think is common, you’ll get a ton of money and pay out very little,” Kochenburger said.
Studies have shown that guns are rarely used in self-defense. There is no reliable estimate for the number of concealed-carry license holders in the United States. The controversial pro-gun researcher John Lott puts the most up-to-date figure at approximately 14 million , which would represent a significant jump from the 7.8 million active permits that the federal Government Accountability Office counted in 2012.
Those figures represent pools of potential insurance customers, encouraged by the NRA to prepare for the eventuality of needing to use a gun to fend off harm. They also significantly exceed the NRA’s self-reported membership of 5 million.
Over the last four decades, the NRA has successfully lobbied to make it possible for Americans to carry concealed weapons in an ever-expanding list of places that were traditionally considered taboo. Ten states have laws allowing guns on college campuses, and other states allow firearms in bars, churches, and government buildings. The NRA is also the architect and primary proponent of “stand your ground” laws that allow gun owners to use deadly force when they believe they are under grave threat. Earlier this month, Iowa became the 24th state to adopt such a statute.
The NRA is throwing its full weight behind Carry Guard. The gun group rolled out the program with endorsements from its most senior figures, including Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre, top lobbyist Chris Cox, and right-wing media personality Dana Loesch. A Carry Guard membership will include a subscription to a new glossy quarterly magazine and a one-year NRA membership. The group even renamed its Personal Defense Expo, scheduled for August in Wisconsin, as the NRA Carry Guard Expo.
As it launches Carry Guard, the NRA is also moving relentlessly to stamp out competing insurance offerings that beat its product to market years ago.
“If you already have concealed carry insurance, you better read the fine print,” a webpage for Carry Guard warns, before touting its underwriting by the insurance giant Chubb.
“That would not have been the company I thought would have been doing this,” Kochenburger, the insurance law expert, said of Chubb’s involvement.
Two of the NRA’s rivals in the self-defense insurance business are the US Concealed Carry Association (USCAA) and Second Call. Both offer packages — insurance to cover legal fees, bail bonding, a 24-hour advice hotline, access to counsel, and training — that the NRA has adopted for Carry Guard.
Those older, smaller organizations had rented exhibition booths and been visible presences at past NRA conventions, and each had planned to attend again this year. But the NRA has informed both that they are disinvited from its upcoming gathering in Atlanta.
“This is not the first time the NRA has decided not to let some company or organization exhibit at the meeting,” said a longtime gun rights activist who is close to the NRA and who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was concerned about possible reprisals. “It has no obligation to let anyone or any business in the door. And clearly the NRA has decided this insurance is a valuable product — there’s value in it. Not letting in the competition is just good business.”
Tim Schmidt is the founder of the USCCA, a company he built to cater specifically to people who use guns for self-defense. He learned just two weeks before the kickoff of the NRA’s 2017 convention that he and his group would not be welcome this time around.
“It was explained in a letter,” Schmidt told The Trace. “Their explanation was that they had some ‘concerns about our programs.’ After doing a little bit of research it seems pretty clear they want us out because of their own new programs.”
Schmidt said he suspects that his own organization’s rapid growth tipped off the NRA to the money to be made in self-defense insurance. According to Schmidt, USCCA had 35,000 members at the end of 2011. As of April 15 of this year, membership had swelled to over 193,000. The coverage plans that USCAA sells go for between $13 and $30 per month, which works out to annual revenue between $30 million to $70 million.
Other prominent figures in the self-defense industry believe that insurance geared toward gun owners has gained traction as self-defense shootings have come under the media spotlight.
“So many people have seen justified incidents turned by social justice warriors or plaintiff’s counsel into murder,” said Massad Ayoob, a well-known shooting instructor who has long been an ambassador for and referred his students to another self-defense insurer, the Armed Citizens’ Legal Defense Network.
Ayoob offered the example of George Zimmerman, the Florida man who found himself at the center of a national controversy and protracted, costly legal battle when he claimed self-defense after the 2012 shooting and killing of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager.
“Those who saw themselves as peers” of Zimmerman, Ayoob explained, watched his trial and thought, “‘Oh, shit. I don’t have the resources to handle that!’”
Critics of self-defense insurance worry that if more people acquire the sense of security that can comes with coverage, it could incentivize more of them to turn to lethal force.
“It makes people believe they really do have the entitlement to use force in situations where it’s not necessary,” said Mary Anne Franks, a law professor at the University of Miami. “Insurance says you can plan for these situations, and you’ll be covered if you’re in one.”
The NRA did not respond to questions about Carry Guard. But the program’s promotional page says that the policy will cover 20 percent of legal defense costs up front when a member faces criminal charges. The remaining 80 percent is reimbursed up to the coverage limit after acquittal or dismissal. A member found guilty is not eligible for further reimbursement, beyond the initial 20 percent.
U.S. Law Shield is another firearms legal-defense service. It began selling its coverage in 2010, and still expects to attend this year’s NRA’s convention. The company’s president, Kirk Evans, said it has around 240,000 members across 15 states. Each member pays at least $10.95 a month for the service, generating more than $31.5 million a year.
Evans estimated that U.S. Law Shield covers between 75 and 160 cases annually, most of them criminal. Unlike Carry Guard, he said, his company covers all of its members’ legal fees from the start, regardless of a case’s outcome. Law Shield does take some precautions to limit its costs: When a new self-defense claim comes in, Evans’s team reviews the police report, and will decline to cover shooters whose cases are unlikely to sustain a prosecutor’s scrutiny.
“We once had a guy who basically snuck up and shot his spouse at a traffic light,” Evans said. “So we did not provide coverage there. But that’s a rare occurrence.”
Schmidt said he has tried not to be bitter about the new competition from the NRA.
“My company will continue to support the NRA because of their long history of supporting the Second Amendment,” he said. “I’m a lifetime member.”
Earlier this year, according to Schmidt, the NRA approached USCCA to talk about partnering to create a program that looks a lot like what the larger group is now marketing as Carry Guard.
Schmidt said he walked an NRA representative through how USCCA’s coverage works. But then he never heard anything more from the NRA about the plan — until he got the letter disinviting him from the convention in Atlanta.
“I’m not sure if their partnership offer was disingenuous or not” Schmidt said. “But even if it was, the mission is too important to squabble over.”
Correction: this article misstated the estimated annual revenue of U.S. Law Shield. It originally said the Law Shield had approximately $2.6 million in annual revenue. This was an estimate of the program’s monthly revenue. The article now has the correct annual figure.