Alcohol may not be the first thing that most Americans think of when they think of violent crime, but a growing body of research keeps proving that America’s favorite drug is a big contributor to crime and violence.
Consider the latest evidence: A new study, by researchers at the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California Davis, found that alcohol may be a much better predictor of future crime, including violent acts, than whether you have a criminal record at all. And that suggests that preventing alcohol abuse could play a big role in preventing future violence.
What the new study on alcohol abuse and violence found
The researchers looked at a sample of more than 4,000 handgun buyers in California, using data that ran from 1977 to 1991 to take a longitudinal look at criminal histories starting 15 days (the waiting period for gun purchases in the state) after they made a buy. They then looked at the gun owners who had prior convictions for alcohol-related crimes — meaning those who did something illegal while actually under the influence — and how that related to subsequent criminal actions.
People with alcohol convictions were four to five times as likely as people with no criminal histories to be arrested for a subsequent criminal act, including a violent or firearm-related crime. Surprisingly, among people with prior alcohol convictions, other past violent and nonviolent convictions were fairly weak predictors of future crimes. That suggests that, for this population, alcohol abuse was a stronger predictor of crime than a previous history of crime or violence.
But Garen Wintemute, one of the study’s authors, told me that since this study only looked at gun owners with either at least one alcohol conviction or no criminal history, it “can’t address the question of risk related to prior violence among people who had a criminal history but didn’t have an alcohol-related conviction.”
Gun owners are a particularly concerning population when it comes to alcohol: Citing data from a previous study, the researchers noted that “in any 30-day period as many as 11.7 million firearm owners binge drink, and 3.6 million drink heavily on a continuing basis.”
There are a few limitations to the study. For one, the authors only looked at arrests within California — since it’s what was available through the previous study that they took the data from. So it’s possible it missed some arrest and criminal history data from outside the state. And it’s hard to say if the data can be extrapolated to the rest of the country.
The data, the researchers also acknowledged, is fairly old. This created some problems as it relied on an old statute to define alcohol-related crimes: It may have picked up some convictions as alcohol-related that were, in fact, related to other drugs — due to how the DUI statute was enforced in earlier decades. But the researchers estimate that this only affected up to 3 percent of the convictions they tracked, based on annual state reports for DUI enforcement.
The researchers are now working on a bigger study that will look at more recent data from California — running from 2001 to 2013 — to alleviate some of these drawbacks.
This isn’t the first study with such results
Still, there is a solid body of research linking alcohol to violence. The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence estimates that alcohol is a factor in 40 percent of violent crimes. Other research has consistently found that alcohol abuse and crime are closely linked. So this latest study is really just building on a lot of previous research.
A 2010 study even found a strong relationship between the presence of alcohol stores and gun assaults.
As Charles Branas, who conducted the 2010 study previously told me, “It’s a disinhibition theory. So it’s not so much aggressiveness, but that decisions and judgment that would normally be held in check are suddenly disinhibited under consumption of alcohol.”
The findings are important for public policy. Much of the debate surrounding guns in America has focused on gun control and people with mental illness. But while the connection between mental illness and carrying out violent acts is shoddy, the research suggests that alcohol abuse is a very strong predictor of violent crimes. Yet most states — all but three and Washington, DC, according to the study — have unenforceable or no laws that restrict access to guns for people with histories of alcohol abuse.
And across the country, there is a lot that could be done to restrict the kind of access to alcohol that enables abuse — but is rarely mentioned in public policy conversations.
Public policy can target alcohol abuse without prohibition
Very often in alcohol policy debates, the conversation shifts to Prohibition, which from 1920 to 1933 banned the production, transportation, and sales of recreational alcohol in the US. This policy is viewed by historians and drug policy experts as a total disaster — one that enabled a rise in violence nationwide as organized criminal groups violently struggled to maintain a foothold in the illegal alcohol trade, leading to worse public health and safety outcomes than alcohol itself did.
Thankfully, policy experts have developed all sorts of ideas to curtail alcohol abuse without resorting to a failed policy like Prohibition. Here are just a few examples:
- A higher alcohol tax: A 2010 review of the research in the American Journal of Public Health came out with strong findings: “Our results suggest that doubling the alcohol tax would reduce alcohol-related mortality by an average of 35%, traffic crash deaths by 11%, sexually transmitted disease by 6%, violence by 2%, and crime by 1.4%.”
- Reducing the number of alcohol outlets: A 2009 review published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine also found that limiting the number of alcohol outlets in an area through stricter licensing, for example, can limit problematic drinking and its dangers. But it also found that going too far can have negative results — by, for example, causing more car crashes as people take longer drives to outlets and possibly drink before returning home.
- Revoking alcohol offenders’ right to drink: South Dakota’s 24/7 Sobriety program effectively revokes people’s right to drink if a court deems it necessary after an alcohol-related offense. The program, specifically, monitors offenders through twice-a-day breathalyzer tests or a bracelet that can track blood alcohol level, and jails them for one or two days for each failed test. Studies from the RAND Corporation have linked the program to drops in mortality, DUI arrests, and domestic violence arrests.
- Put state governments in charge of selling alcohol: A 2014 report from RAND concluded that when state governments monopolize alcohol sales through state-run shops, they can keep prices higher, reduce access to youth, and reduce overall levels of use.
These are just a few of the ideas that experts have put out there. There are many more ways to curtail alcohol consumption and abuse without outright banning it — a lesson that could perhaps be applicable in other aspects of drug policy.
But for these types of policies to happen, Americans and their lawmakers need to first acknowledge there’s a problem. And the research increasingly shows there really is one.