Can DUI convictions help keep guns out of the hands of people prone to violence?
Drinking and driving is already a deadly cocktail. New research finds that adding gun ownership to the mix heightens the risk for violent outcomes.
A study that set out to track about 80,000 legal gun purchasers in California found that handgun buyers with a DUI on their record were more likely to go on to be arrested for a violent crime. That was the case even if driving under the influence of alcohol was the only criminal conviction in his or her past.
In the roughly dozen years after purchasing a gun in 2001, Californians who had already been convicted of drunk driving were 2.5 times more likely than those with no DUI convictions to be arrested on suspicion of murder, rape, robbery or aggravated assault, according to the study published this week in JAMA Internal Medicine. If the range of violent offenses was broadened slightly to include crimes like stalking, harassment or child neglect, handgun buyers with a prior DUI were more than three times likelier than those with no DUI conviction to be arrested.
The new findings come as the California Assembly considers a bill that would revoke a person’s right to own a gun for 10 years if he or she has been convicted of two or three (depending on the offense) misdemeanors involving alcohol in a span of three years.
Senate Bill 55 passed the Senate in May by a vote of 26 to 10. It is opposed by Gun Owners of California, a gun rights group, and by the American Civil Liberties Union, which argues the bill would disproportionately affect black people and fails to address the “root causes” of substance abuse and violent behavior.
Under California law, people who have a felony conviction can’t receive a gun license from the state. In addition, people with misdemeanor convictions for crimes involving violence, hate, the unlawful use of firearms and certain other things aren’t eligible to receive a license for 10 years. SB 55 would add convictions for public intoxication, disorderly conduct under the influence of alcohol, and drunk driving to that list.
The new research goes some way toward filling a gap in research that prompted then-Gov. Jerry Brown to veto an earlier version of the bill in 2013. Brown wrote that he was “not persuaded that it is necessary to bar gun ownership on the basis of crimes that are non-felonies, non-violent and do not involve misuse of a firearm.”
The study comes from researchers at UC Davis’ Violence Prevention Research Program. Its findings suggest that denying gun ownership rights to those with a history of drunk driving convictions would reduce violent crimes and might save lives. In 2017, 14,542 homicides and more than 400,000 violent victimizations involved the use of a firearm.
But the researchers did not draw a causal line between drunkenness and criminal violence. Although roughly a third of all firearms deaths in the United States are thought to have involved alcohol, these new findings do not suggest that alcohol itself prompts or predisposes a gun owner to victimize others.
Instead, they suggest that, across broad populations, many people who engage in risky behavior involving alcohol will also engage in the kinds of risky behavior that endanger other people’s lives. And in cases where heavy drinking and gun access are combined, impaired judgment might heighten the risk that an individual predisposed to violent behavior will act out.
In that sense, the new findings zero in on a subgroup of gun owners who may have driven some of the sobering findings of a 2011 study by Dr. Garen Wintemute, the director or the Violence Prevention Research Program and senior author of the new report.
Drawing from a survey of Americans’ risk behaviors, Wintemute found that gun owners in general were twice as likely as those who do not own guns to drink heavily, and 2.5 times more likely to get behind the wheel after having drunk, by their own admission, “perhaps too much.”
The new study makes clear that lawless behavior is not the norm among gun owners. The researchers were able to track 65,387 Californians between the ages of 21 and 49 who bought a handgun legally in 2001 and could still be found in the state in 2013. Of those overwhelmingly male and mostly white gun buyers, 1,495 — fewer than 2% — had a prior conviction on a drunk driving charge. And just over 14% of that small group of gun owners were arrested for violent crimes during the 12-year study period.
That is much higher than the 3% rate at which gun buyers with no DUI or other convictions went on to be arrested for a violent crime. (After adjusting for factors such as age, gender and ethnicity, the researchers found the risk for those with a prior DUI conviction was 2.5 to three times higher than those with no such conviction.)
In focusing on DUIs, “we’ve identified a risk factor for future violence among people who buy handguns, and the association is fairly strong — an almost threefold increase in risk,” said study leader, an assistant professor of emergency medicine at UC Davis.
At the same time, she acknowledged, the number of gun sales blocked by a measure like SB 55 would be small, as would the number of violent crimes prevented.
“It’s a bit of a balancing act,” Kagawa said.
Such reasoning riles Sam Paredes, executive director of Gun Owners of California.
Using past or present behavior as a predictor of future violent acts — “that whole concept is very difficult,” he said.
“You’re being stripped of your rights because someone believes you are a danger in the future?” Paredes said. “I cannot even contemplate what the future consequences of such a perspective could be. It’s not just guns. This could translate to all manner of things.”
A prior conviction for drunk driving seems to be a better predictor of future criminal violence than a prior conviction for other, non-alcohol-related, nonviolent misdemeanors, the study results suggest, but just by a little bit. Lawful buyers of handguns with a conviction like that on their rap sheet were more than twice as likely as buyers with squeaky clean records to be arrested for a violent crime over the next dozen years.
“These findings unmistakably support the pending California DUI convictions legislation,” according to an editorial that accompanied the study.
Though the number of potential wrongdoers barred from gun ownership “may seem small,” the broad adoption of such laws “has the potential to avert larger numbers of acts of firearm violence,” wrote the editorial authors, a trio of injury prevention experts from the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University.
Adoption of a federal law like SB 55 — an unlikely prospect in the current Congress — would “decisively signal that, as a nation, we are as intolerant of mixing alcohol and firearms, so-called drunk firing, as we are of drunk driving,” they wrote.
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