California Department of Justice file, 2012 The state Department of Justice displays some guns seized from people in a database of convicted felons and others who are legally barred from having firearms. The Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown added $24 million to improve enforcement. Now, lawmakers are considering a bill to expand the list of those prohibited from possessing guns.

Editorial: Alcohol abuse and firearms are deadly mix

Published: Monday, Jul. 29, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 9A

Legislators are rightly concerned about approving legislation that would further crowd the already overcrowded county jails and state prisons.

One way to reduce the number of people behind bars is to prevent crime. And taking guns out of the hands of chronic alcohol abusers would be one such measure.

Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, is carrying Senate Bill 755, which would add a series of crimes, including some alcohol and drug crimes, to the list of offenses for which people would lose the right to possess firearms.

Specifically, her bill says anyone convicted twice in three years of driving under the influence would lose gun ownership rights for 10 years. Many people make one mistake by getting behind the wheel of a car after drinking too much. But getting a second DUI in a three-year period indicates the person has a serious problem.

As it is, people convicted of any felony, whether violent or not, lose their right to own guns, as do people convicted of violent misdemeanors or domestic violence, and individuals who have been detained for mental illness.

Wolk proposes to add several new crimes to the list, including selling firearms without a permit, selling ammunition to minors, bringing bullets to a school ground, and being actively involved in a criminal street gang.

Some might quibble with some of the crimes she seeks to add to the list. But there is plenty of evidence linking heavy alcohol use with violent crime.

Dr. Garen Wintemute, a UC Davis Medical School professor who studies gun violence, notes that alcohol abusers are far more likely to commit violent crimes and suicide.

Bureau of Justice Statistics surveys in 1993 and 2004 found that 37 percent of inmates convicted of violent crimes were under the influence of alcohol at the time they committed their crimes, and 39 percent of the people convicted of homicide had acute alcohol intoxication.

"Substantial research evidence demonstrates an increase in risk for fatal and nonfatal violence associated with both acute alcohol intoxication and pre-existing alcohol abuse or dependence," he wrote in a summary of the research.

The Senate approved Wolk's bill by a vote of 25-12, with 24 Democrats and one Republican, Sen. Anthony Cannella of Ceres, supporting it.

But it failed to get a single vote in the Assembly Public Safety Committee, where Chairman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, raised questions about further criminalization of drug and alcohol abuse. The measure is expected to come up for a vote again in August. There ought to be a middle ground.

Wolk's goal should be to get guns out the hands of people who shouldn't have them, not necessarily to incarcerate more individuals.

One compromise might be to remove the possibility of prison by making it a misdemeanor for people to possess guns if they've been convicted twice of driving under the influence in a three-year period.

For years, California has been a national leader in efforts to remove guns from individuals who are not responsible enough to have them. By approving a modified version of SB 755, the Legislature could help make the state a little safer, without further crowding jails and prisons.

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