While the relationship between gun violence and mental health get lots of attention, numerous studies have established a much stronger link between excessive alcohol consumption and gun violence.
What The Research Says
While politicians and media give a lot of attention to mental health in relation to gun violence, such a link has not been established in research. In fact, roughly 3 to 5% of violent crime is thought to be caused by people with a mental illness.
By contrast, alcohol misuse is much more of a risk factor for gun violence. A link between the two has been widely established in medical research:
A 2015 study from the University of California, Davis, found that death rates from alcohol-related gun violence were higher than those from car crashes.
Another study published in 1997 in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that non-drinkers living in a home with alcohol users were at increased risk of homicide.
Most recently, a 2019 UC Davis study found that California gun buyers with prior DUI convictions were more than 2.5 times more likely to be arrested later for violent crimes, including violent crimes using firearms.
Rose Kagawa, a professor at the UC Davis’s Department of Emergency Medicine, is the lead author on that last study.
Kagawa says while there’s a wealth of research linking alcohol use and violence, two studies over the last few years from UC Davis, including her most recent, have focused on what happens when guns are also easily accessible:
“If you think of our [gun] background check systems … they are a prediction tool to identify people at highest risk for committing future violence,” Kagawa said. “This study established DUI [conviction] as a risk factor for later being charged with a violent crime, including a violent crime with a firearm.”
The Scale Of The Problem
We know from the latest Pew Research survey that approximately 30% of Americans say they own a gun. And about 10% more say they live in households with guns. This would suggest that more than 130 million Americans have some kind of contact with firearms in their daily lives.
We also know that alcohol consumption and misuse is a common occurrence. According to the latest national survey, more than half of U.S. adults report they drank alcohol in the past month. And more than one-quarter report engaging in “binge drinking,” defined as four or more drinks for women, and five or more for men in a single day.
According to the latest data from the CDC, firearms were used in 23,854 suicides and in 14,542 homicides in the U.S. in 2017, and 51% of people who committed suicide used a gun.
And a 2013 meta-study found that on average, nearly half of homicide offenders were under the influence of alcohol when they committed the crime. For suicides, a recent study found that alcohol is present in about one third of all deaths.
Intimate Partner Gun Violence
A 2009 University of Maryland study found that a majority of domestic violence homicides were committed by a perpetrator under the influence of alcohol. Roughly 60% of all homicides involved a firearm according to the Department of Justice.
And another study from 2008 conducted by researchers at the University of New Mexico found that nearly half of perpetrators of domestic homicides had elevated blood alcohol levels. More than 60% of those homicides involved a firearm.
So What’s Being Done?
There are no federal laws that pertain to firearms and alcohol use. The list of prohibited persons who can’t be sold guns does include users of a “controlled substance” but does not include alcohol users.
Just three states, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Indiana, and Washington, D.C. have laws that prohibit persons with DUI convictions from purchasing firearms.
But at least 20 states have passed laws that in some way restrict access to firearms by individuals who misuse alcohol, are under the influence at the time of purchase or have been convicted of an alcohol-related misdemeanor. The problem, according to Kagawa, is these kinds of laws are often too vague and nonspecific and therefore largely ineffective.
“When you think about a person in an office who’s dealing with records and background checks and has to put something into a database, they have to be clear and catchable,” Kagawa said.“If somebody is [identified as] a ‘habitual drunkard’ but there’s no clearly, operationalized way of measuring that, then it’s hard to get that into the database when they meet the criteria.”
And that is why Kagawa says gun purchasing laws that identify prior DUI convictions are more easily implemented and accessible to law enforcement.
These laws have not yet been evaluated by researchers, though, so we don’t know whether they actually work to prevent alcohol-fueled gun violence.
“We can’t 100% of the time identify who’s going to go on to commit violence, but when we quantify it, we say how many people with this risk factor go on to be convicted of a future offense and how many people do not go on to be convicted,” Kagawa said.
Still, the body of research linking alcohol misuse with gun violence is well-established and growing larger.
Guns & America is a public media reporting project on the role of guns in American life.