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Trauma Prevention and Outreach

Trauma Prevention and Outreach

NEWS | June 14, 2011

Gun ownership, carrying a gun linked to heavy alcohol use

Large, multi-state study shows certain gun owners more likely to drink excessively

(SACRAMENTO, Calif.)

Gun owners who carry concealed weapons or have confronted another person with a gun are more than twice as likely to drink heavily as people who do not own guns, according to a study by UC Davis researchers. Binge drinking, chronic heavy alcohol use, and drinking and driving were all more common among gun owners generally than among non-owners, even after adjusting for factors such as age, sex, race, and state of residence.  But alcohol abuse was most common among firearm owners who participated in gun-related behaviors that carry a risk of violence, which also included having a loaded, unlocked firearm in the home and driving or riding in a vehicle with a loaded firearm.

The UC Davis study, which appears online in the journal Injury Prevention, analyzed telephone survey results for more than 15,000 people in eight states. The highest levels of alcohol abuse were reported by gun owners who engaged in dangerous behavior with their weapons. For example, gun owners who also drove or rode in motor vehicles with loaded guns were more than four times as likely to drink and drive as were people who did not own guns.  But gun owners who did not travel with loaded guns were still more than twice as likely to drink and drive as were people who did not own guns.

“It’s not surprising that risky behaviors go together,” said Garen J. Wintemute, author of the study and director of the UC Davis Violence Prevention Research Program. “This is of particular concern given that alcohol intoxication also impairs a gun user’s accuracy as well as his judgment on whether to shoot.”

Wintemute, a professor of emergency medicine at the UC Davis School of Medicine and one of the world’s foremost experts on gun-related violence, analyzed data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System. Study data on firearms ownership and alcohol use came from telephone interviews done in 1996 and 1997 with people in Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Mississippi, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Dakota and Ohio. Participants were asked if they owned a gun, as well as if they engaged in specific firearm-related behaviors. Respondents also were asked about their consumption of alcohol, including whether they have had five or more alcoholic drinks on one occasion; if they drove after consuming “perhaps too much” alcohol; or if they had 60 or more drinks per month.

The article suggests several reasons why dangerous behavior involving alcohol and firearms might be linked. Drinking can impair judgment and lead people to use firearms in ways that they would otherwise avoid. Alternatively, underlying personality traits, such as impulsiveness or an inclination to take risks, could lead to an increase in dangerous behavior involving alcohol and guns.

The study also evaluated gun owners who indicated that they had attended a firearm-safety workshop in the previous three years. Those respondents were less likely to engage in alcohol-related risk behaviors than those who had not attended a workshop.

The data are 15 years old, but no more recent data are available.  Only eight states chose to ask questions about both firearms and alcohol.  Despite these limitations, Wintemute said, the study’s results provide important evidence about gun ownership and the potential for gun use to be closely associated with the misuse and abuse of alcohol.

“New and more comprehensive research is needed, since legislation authorizing the public carrying of loaded and concealed firearms has become almost universal in the United States,” said Wintemute. “Efforts to separate the use of firearms from the use of alcohol may have important benefits for the health and safety of the public.”

According to a 2004 study done by the Harvard School of Public Health, there are 260 to 300 million guns in civilian hands in the United States. The University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center estimates that 32 percent of American households contain firearms. In 2009, more than 30,000 gun-related deaths occurred around the nation, and more than 78,000 people suffered non-fatal gunshot wounds. About one third of firearm-related deaths involve alcohol. In the last three years, about 25 percent of gunshot-wound victims treated at UC Davis Medical Center tested positive for alcohol.

Federal law does not restrict the purchase or possession of firearms by alcohol abusers, who are sometimes defined as ‘habitual drunkards’ or ‘alcoholics,’ and few states do so. Four states allow concealed guns in bars, provided the armed person does not consume alcohol which, noted Wintemute, seems difficult to enforce because the weapons are, by definition, concealed.

The UC Davis Violence Prevention Research Program is an organized research program that addresses the causes, nature and prevention of violence. Its mission is to conduct research to further America’s efforts to understand and prevent violence. Current major areas of emphasis are the prediction of criminal behavior, the effectiveness of waiting-period and background-check programs for prospective purchasers of firearms, and the determinants of firearm violence.