For decades, many of America's finest minds have searched for that single idea, or perhaps set of them, that would ameliorate the growing instances of gun violence that have increasingly blighted our landscape. I don't count myself among the great minds, but I am observant. I notice ideas when they work, and after more than 40 years in Washington, I know how they become laws.

Three decades ago, when I worked at the U.S. Department of Transportation, there arose a huge controversy about whether or not we should install airbags in cars.

All the arguments one hears today about guns and individual liberty have parallels in the defenses drawn by the lobbies that represented the automotive industry in the 1970s.

At that time, General Motors, Ford and Chrysler still stood as fearsome political forces in America. They opposed airbags with the full might of their deep pockets and overarching influence.

How, then, was Congress convinced to overcome this and do the right thing for the American people?

Consumer advocacy played a role by focusing unrelenting publicity on the issue of unnecessary traffic fatalities.

But in truth, airbags ultimately won out when the interests of the auto companies collided with the countervailing agenda of another political behemoth - an insurance industry bent on reducing claims from unnecessary death and injury.

Could something similar occur with the gun issue of today?

Auto insurance is mandated in every state because of the damage a vehicle can do to human beings and property. Without such coverage, everything from the cost of hospitalization to car repair would fall on individual owners, few of whom could afford the cost. The requirement that every driver be covered also leads consumers to seek the best deal, while the past history of the driver, the price of the vehicle, seatbelt use and the existence of airbags determine those costs.

Like autos, guns have the capacity to do great damage up to and including mortality.

Why, then, should gun owners not be required to carry gun insurance to cover the liability associated with ownership and use?

The cost of that insurance would naturally relate to the amount of damage the gun could do: a shotgun used for bird hunting would bring one price, but a 9 mm pistol with a 30-bullet load or an assault weapon would cost much more.

This pricing factor in itself would inherently depress the market for the most dangerous weapons.

Perhaps the greatest insurance break could be given to those who take a standardized course in gun ownership and use. If gun owners knew more about their weapon, fewer would be injured or die by accident.

Gun ownership in our society would begin to take shape in an organized, responsible way.

In America, gun ownership is a fact of life, but the insurance marketplace could help make it a safer one. New businesses would emerge to employ gun-safety instructors, thus creating widespread employment. Insurance companies would enjoy a whole new market, and their stockholders would benefit.

In Washington, the best way to achieve real reform is to propose solutions that are palatable to both consumers and stakeholders in the business community. That is why mandatory gun insurance is one new idea gaining traction. More than any other current proposal, the marketplace may hold the best hope for imposing order on today's chaotic and dangerous gun policies.

Terry Bracy was assistant secretary of transportation under President Carter and helped lead the administration's campaign to win congressional approval of mandatory airbag installation in autos sold in the US. His firm represents Tucson in Washington.