Denying Gun Access Based on Drug and Alcohol Misdemeanors May Reduce Gun Violence

A woman cries into her hands, covering her face.

ALBANY, N.Y. (September 16, 2022) - A recent study published in Injury Epidemiology shows that denying gun purchases based on a history of convictions related to drug and alcohol use may slightly reduce the number of people who are killed by firearms through homicide and suicide.

The study uses agent-based modeling, a method in which researchers can virtually modify interventions to a public health problem, such as changing the dosage, duration, target population, and more. This allows for a comparison of different strategies to find the most effective intervention.

“The approach integrates methods and insights from sociology, criminology, psychology, behavioral science, and other disciplines to test hypothetical strategies in the models and inform intervention and policy development,” says Melissa Tracy from the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the UAlbany School of Public Health, one of the study’s authors.

Using this modeling, the research team created a sample of 800,000 based on the adult population of New York City. Each person in the simulation— called an “agent”— was assigned characteristics such as age, race/ethnicity, income, education, and marital status—and was also assigned to a neighborhood in a way that matched the U.S. census data for where a person with those specific characteristics would live. They were also assigned behaviors such as alcohol and drug use, various health disorders, gun carrying and purchasing, and violence victimization or perpetration. Agents were then assigned social networks based on geography and characteristics.

When the model was run, the agents’ “lives” were tracked as the model progressed and showed how life unfolded. The researchers could then tweak how the agents were allowed to purchase guns based on alcohol-related and drug-related convictions and see how this impacted the number of firearm-related deaths.

The results showed that disqualifying someone from purchasing a gun for five years following an alcohol-related misdemeanor conviction reduced rates of suicide across the population by one percent and reduced suicide by three percent. Disqualification for five years based on drug-related misdemeanors led to a higher reduction in deaths across the population, with homicide reduced by 1.6 percent and suicide reduced by 4.6 percent.

Among those who had ever had an alcohol misdemeanor, a five-year disqualification from purchasing a gun resulted in an eight percent decrease in firearm-related homicide and a 24 percent decrease in firearm-related suicides. The five-year restrictions were less effective for those who had restrictions placed on them related to a drug misdemeanor, with firearm-related homicide decreasing by 2.6 percent within the subpopulation and suicide decreasing by 10.5 percent.

“While this model shows that we could reduce firearm violence by prohibiting the purchase of firearms based on convictions, we also need to keep in mind that stigma, disenfranchisement of historically marginalized groups, and racial discrimination in policing have a significant impact,” says Tracy. “These need to be addressed alongside population-level approaches.”