Regulating firearm ownership for at-risk individuals, such as those with a prior felony or domestic violence convictions, is already written into federal law. Now, according to new research, there may be a reason to examine alcohol-related offenses as a precursor to partner violence, too.
Gun purchasers with prior convictions for driving under the influence were nearly three times more likely to be arrested in the future for domestic partner violence than gun purchasers who had no criminal history at the time of purchase, a study published Monday in the journal Health Affairs found.
The study utilized data from nearly 80,000 people between the ages of 21 and 49, who purchased a legal handgun in California in 2001.
"It shows very, very clearly that prior criminal history predicts future criminal history," Dr. Megan Ranney, professor at Brown University and chief research officer at the gun violence research group AFFIRM, told ABC News.
"People who have a tendency for risky behavior, continue to have a tendency for risky behavior," said Ranney, who was not connected to the new study.
Predicting risky behavior with firearms is particularly important in the context of intimate partner violence, Ranney explained, since victims are five times more likely to die if an abuser has access to a gun. Even when women don’t die, guns are a persistent threat to their collective safety and well-being. Nearly 1 million women say they’ve been shot at by an intimate partner at some point in their lives, and 4.5 million who report being bullied or coerced with a gun.
The study potentially helps fill a gap in our knowledge about violence, according to lead author Hannah Sybil Laqueur. While researchers have documented the connection between guns and intimate partner violence, and alcohol and intimate partner violence, there’s been less attention paid to the nexus of the three factors together, Laqueur, who is also an assistant professor at UC Davis Health, said.
In California, new research may prove to be more than hypothetical.
A 2013 bill that passed in the state would have prohibited firearm sales for 10 years to people who had two or more DUI convictions during a three-year period. The governor vetoed the bill at the time, on the basis that there wasn’t enough evidence linking non-violent crimes committed without a firearm to violent firearm crimes. A similar proposal was floated this year, citing a smaller UC Davis study with older data, that didn’t specifically examine intimate partner violence.
If the bill is put forth again next year, there’s much more robust data for policymakers to pull from.
"Given evidence that people who consume alcohol are at increased risk of violence, and intimate partner violence in particular, regulating firearm access may afford an important public health opportunity to reduce the risk and severity of that violence 10-year prohibition on firearm sales," the study authors wrote.
Loopholes that limit and hamstring background checks
While background checks are a popular policy, even among Republicans, 83% of whom support background checks for potential gun owners, according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll conducted in early September, the evidence to support their effectiveness is moderate in some areas, and inconclusive in others.
The most glaring examples are recent mass shootings involving legal guns purchased by individuals who would have failed, or did fail, background checks and went on to kill. This summer in Odessa, Texas, for example, a gunman who was barred from buying a firearm because of his history of serious mental health problems and volatile behavior, was denied sale by a gun dealer, but went on to purchase an AR-15-style weapon privately, which he then used to shoot 32 people, killing seven of them.
In a review published in Health Affairs in conjunction with the domestic violence study Monday, Dr. Garen Wintemute set out to identify why background checks don’t seem to work at a population level.
One of the biggest problems is incomplete data, according to Wintemute, who directs the UC Davis Violence Prevention Research Program and the University of California Firearm Violence Research Center and has spent decades studying firearm violence.
For starters, except for federal agencies, a lot of the reporting on at-risk individuals -- from courts, psychiatric facilities, etc. -- is voluntary. Even when the information is available, not every state utilizes the state data they have to run checks. Some simply rely on federal data, meaning their examinations are less thorough.
Vague definitions of categories that would exclude someone from firearm ownership add a layer of subjectivity to the process, and even among those entities that are required to report, there’s a certain subset of sellers and buyers who don’t care about the rules.
A focus on DUIs, as shown in Ranney's statistics, may provide less subjectivity.
In so-called Second Amendment sanctuaries, where officials have publicly stated that they won’t enforce state background check laws, enforcement could be especially patchy.
Then there’s the loophole of private gun sales, once limited to gun shows, but with the internet, the private, background check-free marketplace is effectively everywhere.
In the face of these weak spots, Wintemute thinks the rules should be tightened. Re-education campaigns might drive down accidental non-compliance, and sting operations could target sellers who knowingly break the rules. Federal support for state and local reporting needs to continue, or increase, with a goal of 100% reporting -- and importantly -- timely reporting, since the risk of violence is highest after a disqualifying event.
"Any reforms to policy and practice will merit rigorous evaluation," Wintemute wrote in his review, stressing that making strides to plug those holes, could "substantially improve the checks’ effectiveness at the population level."