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Can DUI convictions help keep guns out of the hands of people prone to violence?

Melissa Healy, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Science & Technology News

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 was passed 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. In blocking the proposed law, 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's 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.

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