Restricting Access to Firearms for Heavy Drinkers Could Reduce Gun Violence
A new study reviewing existing evidence has argued that restricting access to firearms for those who abuse alcohol could reduce the levels of gun violence in the U.S., but that clear definitions of alcohol misuse are necessary for such policies to be effective. The study points out that for men, firearm violence leads to as many alcohol-associated deaths as motor vehicle accidents, underlining both the severity of the problem and the room for improvement. The study details the evidence of links between alcohol misuse and gun violence and also addresses the problems with existing legislation attempting to address the issue.
Alcohol Abuse and Gun Violence
The study is a narrative review that delves into the relationship between alcohol abuse and firearm violence. The sole researcher on the study, Garen J. Wintemute, professor of emergency medicine at the University of California Davis, introduces the issue by pointing out that, “In any given month, an estimated 8.9 million to 11.7 million firearm owners binge drink. Both binge drinking and heavy chronic drinking are more common among firearm owners than in the general population.”
The core point raised by the first part of the study—looking at the link between alcoholism and firearm violence—is summarized by Wintemute’s comment that, “Both acute alcohol intoxication and chronic alcohol misuse are strongly associated with risk for committing firearm violence, whether that violence is directed at others or at oneself.”
The paper documents extensive evidence for this conclusion, including a nationally-representative study that found that those who reported threatening someone with a firearm were more likely to meet the criteria for alcohol abuse or dependence. Other studies show that people who abuse alcohol are more likely to display angry behavior and either carry firearms outside the home or have guns in their homes.
The gun violence connection to alcohol abuse isn’t only directed at others. One study found that heavy drinking was associated with a huge increase in the risk of suicide (or near-suicide) using firearms, with heavy drinkers being 86 times more likely to commit suicide than those who didn’t drink heavily.
Current Legislation Is Ineffective
The second part of the paper looks at policies relating to alcohol misuse and access to firearms, finding that both federal and state-level policies are fairly ineffective at preventing those with problems with alcohol from accessing guns. Wintemute points out that while a federal rule prevents users of—or anybody addicted to—a controlled substance from buying or owning firearms, alcohol is excluded from this statute, leaving that decision to individual states.
He goes on to argue that while several states—37 in total, covering 65 percent of the total U.S. population—do place restrictions on people who are either drunk or have a history of issues with alcohol trying to obtain firearms, the definitions used make the laws next-to-useless. He says they are virtually unenforceable because, “they rely on vague, inherently subjective definitions of intoxication or misuse, such as “habitual drunkard,” “habitually in an intoxicated condition,” “chronic alcoholic” and “addicted to alcohol.’” Additionally, states with clearer definitions—often focusing on a history of alcohol-related offenses—either have poor evidence on enforcement or available data even suggest that the rules aren’t well enforced.
He draws on more general evidence to suggest that putting clear rules in place to restrict gun access for those who abuse alcohol would have a positive effect on the rates of gun violence across America. He uses California as an example, where those convicted of a violent misdemeanor can’t obtain firearms for a decade following their conviction, which has reduced the rates of re-arrest for firearm-related or other violent offenses. Wintemute suggests that those with multiple convictions for alcohol-related offenses (like driving under the influence) would be an effective approach to reducing gun violence.
Alcohol and Firearms: A Dangerous Combination
The conclusion drawn by the paper is a fairly obvious one: people who drink too much aren’t the best people to have access to guns. It’s a ridiculous hypocrisy to treat drug abusers and alcohol abusers as different in this respect in federal law, seemingly more a reflection of our comparatively accepting attitude toward alcohol in society than any sort of rational attempt to reduce gun violence.
Binge drinking, for example, is known to be associated with intentional and unintentional injuries, including sexual assault, domestic violence and firearm-related injuries, and it doesn’t take much reflection to determine that those under the influence of alcohol would be especially dangerous when in possession of a deadly weapon. As Wintemute suggests, developing laws based on unambiguous definitions of alcohol misuse is essential if we want to reduce the risk of gun violence in our society.