The combination of guns and alcohol is especially dangerous, and far too little has been done to address it. Federal law doesn’t restrict access to guns by people with a history of alcohol abuse, and fewer than half of U.S. states impose prohibitions of this kind. The risks to public safety are increasingly clear, and the issue demands more careful attention than lawmakers have allowed up to now.
There’s a close parallel. Over a span of years, evidence accumulated to show that domestic abusers are significantly more likely to kill somebody using a gun. The data showed that millions of American women have been threatened with a gun or shot by a domestic partner. Gradually a consensus formed to support denying firearms to convicted abusers. Federal and state laws were adopted to that end.
To be sure, they’re less effective than one would wish. The U.S. Senate’s failure to enact comprehensive background checks makes it much too easy for prohibited people to get a gun. On average, from 2006 to 2014, at least 760 Americans were shot dead each year by a spouse, former spouse or dating partner. Even so, federal and state laws designed to keep guns away from abusers make a difference.
Today, the links between alcohol abuse and firearm violence are also well established. “The research consistently shows that alcohol abuse is associated with violence toward self and others,” stated a comprehensive 2013 report by a consortium of leading researchers. Millions of firearm owners are binge drinkers — and among American men, deaths from alcohol-related firearm violence are on par with those from alcohol-related motor-vehicle accidents, according to a 2015 study.
Who would have guessed? Drunken gunplay is as lethal as drunken driving.
Last month, a new study confirmed a link between firearm violence and convictions for driving under the influence of alcohol. It tracked 78,878 handgun purchasers over 13 years. Purchasers with DUI convictions were more than four times as likely to be arrested for murder, rape, robbery or aggravated assault than those without.
Hence another unsurprising conclusion: “Alcohol and drug abusers have a substantially increased risk of perpetrating violence.”
Most states don’t prohibit alcohol abusers or those convicted of alcohol-related misdemeanors from purchasing or possessing firearms. Even in states with alcohol provisions, definitions of what constitutes “alcohol abuse” are often too vague to be effective. Pennsylvania’s law is one of the clearest. It’s hardly draconian, banning firearm transfers to anyone convicted of three or more alcohol-related driving violations in five years. The District of Columbia prohibits firearm sales to anyone convicted of two or more alcohol-and-driving violations, also within five years.
Drunken-driving offenses help to identify only a subset of problem drinkers. However, like gun owners with convictions for domestic abuse, gun owners with DUI convictions are a discrete and dangerous group. For lawmakers eager to make progress against gun violence, they’re too good a target to ignore.