If there is a link between alcohol and violence, how should society seek to deal with it? New research out of the University of California at Davis suggests one idea: Pass laws that address the intersection of booze and guns.
According to a new analysis of data by Garen J. Wintemute, director of the UC Davis Violence Prevention Research Program, people who drink heavily and engage in risky behavior like drinking while driving are also more likely to own guns and carry a concealed weapon.
But John Lott — a gun rights blogger, former Yale University researcher and the author of “More Guns, Less Crime” — says Wintemute is conflating legal concealed weapons owners with illegal ones.
Wintemute concedes that the conclusions come from a new analysis of old data: a study conducted in 1996 and 1997 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System. No one has done similar surveys on this scale since, he said. His analysis of the data appears in the current edition of the online academic journal “Injury Prevention.”
He noted that the study involved 15,000 people in eight states across the country. And, given how strong the tendency was for people who engage in risky behavior with alcohol to engage in risky behavior with guns, he said, there is little reason to think the correlation between the two would have changed in the years since.
“We know about alcohol as a risk factor for violence,” Wintemute said. “And we know, from a different data stream, the ownership of a gun is a risk factor for violence. But no one had looked at both.”
In addition to his academic role and UC Davis, Wintemute is an emergency room physician at the UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento — which, he said, is how he got interested in the issue in the first place. Since the center began tracking the data three years ago, one quarter of gunshot wound victims who came through were intoxicated on alcohol. Nationwide statistics show that a third of both suicides and murder victims had alcohol in their systems—and, in the majority of those cases, they met the criteria for being “acutely intoxicated.”
Wintemute laid out a kind of chicken-and-egg relationship between guns and drinking. For instance, gun owners who had taken a firearms safety course were less likely to drink to excess or drink at all. Meanwhile, people who kept a loaded gun in their home or car drank more overall, and were also more likely to drink and drive, binge drink or be classified as a chronic drinker.
All of these factors held true even when Wintemute includes age, sex, race, and state of residence. But even gun owners who didn’t engage in risky behaviors such as carrying a loaded firearm were about twice as likely to drink and drive than non-gun owners. He said he is looking at doing a future paper correlating alcohol and guns with other risky behaviors, such as smoking.
The link, he said, likely has to do with the association of drinking with impulsive behavior.
While his paper is not primarily focused on how to address this connection, Wintemute concludes in his analysis that “Efforts to uncouple the use of firearms from the use of alcohol may have important benefits for the health and safety of the public.” He also suggests more strict controls on bringing guns into bars or restricting gun ownership of people who have been convicted of alcohol-related offenses.
Wintemute noted the case of the United Kingdom, which has high drinking rates, an assault rate noticeably higher than in the United States — and a murder rate that’s far lower. Take the case of Glasgow — a gritty industrial city in Scotland that has long been known as the murder and violence capital of Western Europe. The city has sky-high assault rates, with both victims and perpetrators tending to be young men intoxicated on alcohol. But even in a bad year, the murder rate is less than a seventh of the current U.S. rate, and the weapon in most homicides is a knife.
“A dispute that might end in a fistfight in Glasgow might end with someone getting iced in the United States,” Wintemute said.
But Lott said Wintemute is not making a distinction between one of the most law-abiding groups in the country — concealed weapons permit holders–and criminals who illegally carry guns.
“There is nothing in this paper’s empirical work that differentiates those who have a permit and are legally carrying a concealed handgun and those who are illegally carrying a gun,” Lott said.
DUI rates among legal concealed weapon permit owners are “miniscule,” Lott said. In most states, getting a DUI will immediately lead to revoking or suspending the permit — and getting a DUI while carrying a concealed weapon will get you charged with a crime in many places. Revocation rates for all causes run well under 1 percent annually, Lott said. The state of Texas has 415,000 concealed weapon permit holders, and revoked a single license in 2009 for someone bringing an otherwise-legal weapon into a bar.
Wintemute says he never claimed to differentiate concealed weapons permits holders from those who carried weapons illegally. The surveys, he said, merely asked if someone had carried a concealed gun outside the home for protection from other people at any point in the last 30 days.
Sam Paredes, executive director of Gun Owners of California, painted Wintemute as an anti-gun zealot.
“He’s so anti-gun it’s unbelievable,” Paredes said. He finds a demon under every rock.”
He pointed to 2009 figures from the Justice Department’s National Gang Intelligence Center which show that the country’s remaining violent crime problem is largely a gang issue — and that the ranks of U.S. gangs have swelled to over a million members.