The California Legislature is considering a series of groundbreaking proposals, collectively known as the LIFE Act, to prevent firearm-related crime and violence. Many of those proposals are supported by the recommendations of a nationwide panel of experts in the field, and those recommendations in turn are supported by a large body of research evidence. This column summarizes that evidence for four of the LIFE Act proposals.
Senate Bill 374, by Senate Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento, would prohibit manufacture and sale of semi-automatic rifles, such as AR-type and AK-type firearms, that can accept high-capacity detachable ammunition magazines. The second, Senate Bill 396 by Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, would prohibit possession of the magazines themselves (sales of high capacity magazines have been illegal in California since 1989).
Before California enacted its assault weapon ban in 1989, people who purchased such weapons were more likely than people who purchased other firearms to have a criminal record, and they were more likely to commit violent crimes subsequently. The evidence shows that assault weapon bans are effective in reducing criminal use of the banned weapons. Their effect on crime rates has been modest at best, however, for two reasons.
First, such weapons were not in common criminal use at the time they were banned. An increase in such use, likely with terrible consequences, may well have been prevented, but it’s not possible to measure what never happened. More important, criminals simply switched from banned firearms to others, more or less similar, that could accept the same high-capacity magazines.
With the benefit of hindsight, we know now that the critical target for regulation is not what firearms look like but their ability to carry large amounts of ammunition and be reloaded rapidly. These two proposals hit that target.
A third proposal, Senate Bill 53 by Sen. Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles, would regulate sales of ammunition in much the same way that California now regulates sales of firearms. Vendors would be licensed, and procedures would be in place to detect and prevent purchases by criminals and others who are prohibited from possessing ammunition.
A formal research study in Los Angeles and data from here in Sacramento both established that without such safeguards, prohibited people commonly purchased ammunition. They acquired more than 10,000 rounds in just two months in Los Angeles. From January 2008 through August 2009 in Sacramento, 229 prohibited people purchased ammunition. The district attorney filed charges against 197 of these; others were indicted in federal court. The vast majority of cases were resolved with convictions. Law enforcement seized 160 firearms, thousands of rounds of ammunition, explosive devices and controlled substances.
To paraphrase: firearms don’t kill people; bullets do. As we regulate commerce in firearms, so should we regulate commerce in ammunition.
Finally, Senate Bill 755, by Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, would prohibit, for 10 years the purchase and possession of firearms by alcohol abusers – those who have had two or more convictions for driving under the influence or similar offenses in three years – and certain controlled substance abusers. If there is another similar conviction during that 10-year period, the clock is reset to zero.
The evidence here is compelling. More than 35 percent of prison and jail inmates who were convicted of violent crimes report that they were intoxicated at the time those crimes were committed. People with a history of alcohol abuse or dependence are at increased risk, by roughly a factor of four, for committing violent crimes in the future. Nearly 90 percent of people with multiple DUIs meet standard criteria for the diagnosis of alcohol dependence. They are more likely to have committed violent crimes, including specifically weapon-related crimes, than are people with a single DUI, let alone those with none at all.
And California’s experience shows that denying firearm purchases by high-risk individuals, such as those convicted of violent misdemeanors, works; it reduces their risk of committing violent and firearm-related crimes in the future by at least 25 percent.
Alcohol abuse and controlled substance abuse are powerful risk factors for suicide, too, and are responsible for much of the increase in risk for violence that is commonly associated with serious mental illness. The positive effects of SB 755 could be particularly widespread.
California has a proud tradition of enacting evidence-based reforms to improve the public’s health and safety. These measures uphold that tradition and would bring real benefits to all of us.
Dr. Garen Wintemute is professor of emergency medicine and Baker-Teret Chair in Violence Prevention at UC Davis. Much of the evidence and the recommendations he refers to can be found in Reducing Gun Violence in America, published this year by the Johns Hopkins University Press. Additional resources are at the website of the UC Davis Violence Prevention Research Program: www.ucdmc.ucdavis.edu/vprp.