Drunk drivers more likely to commit violent gun crimes in California, study finds

Gun buyers in California convicted of driving under the influence are at greater risk of committing a violent crime or a firearm-related offense, a group of researchers at UC Davis found in a broad study that tracks gun purchasers over the span of a decade.

The study, which monitored people who bought guns in 2001 until 2013, builds on previous research that warns of a disturbing connection between alcohol use and gun violence. But the latest work relies on a larger sample of nearly 80,000 records on legal handgun buyers.

Researchers found that 3 percent of purchasers with a prior DUI conviction engaged in violent crime with a firearm, according to the findings published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. By comparison, only 0.5 percent of people with no prior arrests or convictions committed a violent crime with a firearm.

“What we’re finding is that having a DUI at the time of purchase is actually an indicator of increased risk for future violence. We think that in itself is very important,” said Rose Kagawa, an assistant professor who led the study and researcher at the UC Davis Violence Prevention Program.

“Compared with purchasers who had no prior criminal history, purchasers with only DUI convictions and no other criminal history had nearly three times the risk of arrest for firearm-related violent crime.”

The study also examined two other scenarios. Researchers found that gun buyers with DUIs were also at greater risk of committing violent crimes as well as committing one of the eight offenses tracked by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Exploring the link between alcohol consumption and firearms is not new. The prior study conducted by UC Davis tracked 4,066 Californians who bought guns in 1997 and monitored interactions with law enforcement until 2001.

Homicides linked as well

Previous research has shown that drinking alcohol can be a predictor for violent behavior, including crimes that involve guns. And some gun owners also report having riskier drinking habits than others. Another study concluded that one-third of the people who committed homicides with a firearm was under the influence during the crime, according to a 2013 analysis published in the journal Homicide Studies.

Some states have passed laws with varying degrees of effect. In Ohio, for example, the law bars anyone who is a “habitual drunkard” from buying a gun; and Tennessee prohibits anyone “who are addicted to alcohol.”

California passed laws in the early 1990s that prohibit firearm sales to people who were previously in psychiatric care for five years and 10 years for people who committed certain misdemeanor crimes. Citing a lack of evidence, former Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a bill in 2013 that would have enacted a 10-year ban on gun purchases by people who were convicted of DUI at least two times.

The findings elicited praise from state senator Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, who authored a bill that would curb gun ownership for people with repeat alcohol convictions. Senate Bill 55 is stalled in the Assembly Public Safety Committee this year but Jackson hopes to move it forward next year.

“As our nation faces an epidemic of gun violence, we must pursue data-driven policies that will help keep deadly firearms out of the hands of those most at risk of committing future violent and firearm-related crimes,” Jackson said in a prepared statement.

“This research clearly demonstrates a link between DUI convictions among handgun purchasers and future violence.”

Kagawa said the goal of the latest study is to provide more evidence for policymakers, but she cautioned against reading too much into the results.

“We have a history of prohibiting (people) from purchasing or possessing firearms based on risk factors,” Kagawa said. “What this study doesn’t do is say whether such a restriction will actually reduce violence because we‘re not evaluating (that outcome).”

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Mike Finch joined The Bee in July 2018 as a data reporter after working at newspapers in Alabama and Florida. A Miami native, he has been a member of Investigative Reporters and Editors since 2012 and studied political science at Florida International University.