Guns don’t kill people. Alcohol kills people.


Ok, so my title is goofy sloganeering, but it isn’t any goofier than the common slogan it is based upon. Although the US could certainly save lives by copying some of the gun restrictions that all other industrialized nations use, I don’t care that America’s gun culture is more extremist than anywhere else on earth because other issues are more important than gun violence in America and guns are politically untouchable due to the gun lobby and the passionate minority of American voters who want us to have more guns and gun freedoms, not less.

Guns simply aren’t as important as lots of other public health issues. For example,  Tyler Cowen makes the case that alcohol policy is much more important.

We take [the free availability of alcohol] for granted, but so many lives are lost each year, so many careers ruined, so much productivity lost. One of my personal crusades is, we should all be more critical of alcohol. People will pull out a drink and drink in front of their children. The same people would not dream of pulling out a submachine gun and playing with it on the table in front of their kids, but I think it’s more or less the same thing. To a lot of liberals, the drink is okay and the submachine gun is not. I think, if anything, it’s the other way around, and I encourage people to just completely, voluntarily abstain from alcohol and make it a social norm.

Alcohol control would do more for Americans than gun control because, as German Lopez says, alcohol is much more dangerous than guns:

As of 2010, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated that excessive drinking causes 88,000 deaths each year in the US… alcohol’s annual death toll is higher than deaths due to guns, cars, drug overdoses, or HIV/AIDS ever have been in a single year in America. There’s a good chance that the CDC’s estimate is an undercount. It’s eight years old at this point, and since then, at least some kinds of alcohol-related deaths have increased too. Some experts have told me that they would not be surprised if the annual death toll linked to alcohol is now above 100,000. And the death toll only captures part of the concern with alcohol. Addiction, domestic violence, sexual assault, and other linked crime and health problems are also significant.

Alcohol use reduces global average life expectancy by 9 months which is far worse than guns.  And the true cost of alcohol is even worse than these statistics imply because drinking alcohol causes a lot of violence too. If you love guns, then you might want to get on the alcohol-restriction bandwagon because restricting alcohol would make America safer for more guns.  That would create a virtuous cycle for guns because slowing our gun-death epidemic would make guns more popular too! German Lopez again:

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. 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… A 2010 study even found a strong relationship between the presence of alcohol stores and gun assaults… 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.

Whereas Americans irrationally obsess about avoiding people with criminal records when hiring and restricting the freedoms of people with mental illness to prevent violence, alcohol abuse predicts crime better than a record of crime or mental illness. Alcohol is particularly dangerous for youths because people who begin drinking younger are more likely to develop an alcohol problem during their lives and as with any health problem, the later in life that an illness strikes, the less tragic the harm.  Furthermore, young people are far more prone to violence than people over 30.  For example, the peak rate of homicide is committed by Americans in their early 20s.  The incidence of binge drinking has a similar age profile.


Parents may have a big impact on their kids’ alcohol consumption too.  As Lauren Sausser wrote, even moderate parental alcohol use has an impact on their kids:

study published last year by the Institute of Alcohol Studies in the United Kingdom found that children may be distressed, embarrassed or otherwise negatively impacted when parents drink even a “low level” of alcohol.  “That this effect starts at the stage when parents are tipsy, rather than being drunk, is possibly a surprising finding…  However, it suggests that the way in which parents and their children view episodes of ‘tipsy’ drinking is quite different.” Further research shows that parents who exhibit favorable attitudes toward drinking alcohol will more likely raise children who will begin drinking as adolescents.

There are lots of ways to reduce violence without gun control such as better policing methods, and regulating alcohol is  so counter-intuitive that few people think of it.  As German points out at the above links, there are lots of practical ways to reduce alcohol use that would save more lives than the kind of gun control that is politically feasible in the US. There is no need to go all the way to prohibition of alcohol to be effective just like there is no need for gun regulations to go all the way to prohibition. Sensible alcohol regulations may be politically difficult due to opposition from the alcohol lobby (much like gun regulations are opposed by the gun lobby), but hardly any groups are pushing for alcohol restrictions.  Perhaps it is because people aren’t as frightened by alcohol as they are by guns and so alcohol produces a lot less emotional salience than guns.  

Guns are a lot scarier looking and dramatic than alcohol, but you should be more frightened of alcohol.

Of course, if your real goal is to repeal the Second Amendment, then focusing on the dangers of shooters and especially mass shooters has repeatedly proven to be an effective way to get countries to restrict gun access.  The gun industry thinks that fear of gun violence will increase gun sales, but it also provided the impetus for all developed nations (except the US) to restrict gun access by requiring a license to buy or operate a gun.  The same kind of fears of violent deaths in the streets led to mandatory driver’s licenses and numerous other restrictions on driving.

So maybe fear is the real reason why we irrationally focus on guns.  The gun lobby likes to scare people with stories of violence to encourage people to buy guns for self defense because they like the short-term boost in gun sales.  On the other side of the political aisle, the anti-gun movement also likes to focus on scary gun violence because they think the fear of gun violence will create momentum towards restricting guns in the long term.

But most people are scared of strangers and the fear of being shot by a stranger is misplaced because it is exceedingly rare.  You are the most likely to be shot by the people you know.  The more time you spend with someone, the more likely they are to shoot you.  The biggest danger is that you will shoot yourself. There are more than twice as many suicides as homicides just about everywhere in the world.  The next highest danger is being shot in the home either by accident or by a temporarily homicidal family member. The next most dangerous people are your friends.  Strangers are the least likely to try to kill you.  Of course, there are a lot more strangers out there than acquaintances, so family members only account for about 25% of all known murder victims and known murderers who kill their acquaintances only account for about 54% of the total.  (Caveat: 44% of murder victims have an unknown relationship with their murderer mostly because the murders are unsolved.)

The US is an extreme outlier in the suicide rate by guns so there is plenty of room for improvement and there is an intriguing libertarian movement to allow individuals more freedom to restrict guns from themselves and on their property.  Right now, it is effectively illegal for individuals with a history of suicidal episodes to put themselves on a list of people who have a mandatory waiting period before they can buy guns because the gun lobby doesn’t want any restrictions on guns.

Although reducing guns could reduce suicides, the suicide rate could also be reduced by restricting alcohol. About 30% of US suicides are associated with alcohol use and there is also a correlation between alcohol use and suicide in many countries.

Cars are also more dangerous than guns. People who do not own a gun should really be far more scared of cars than guns because drivers kill a lot of strangers unlike gun owners! Gun owners are far more likely to kill themselves or family and friends than to kill a stranger whereas drivers are more indiscriminate in who they kill and are particularly lethal for bikers and pedestrians. It goes without saying that cars are safer when there is less alcohol flowing through the brains of drivers. Alcohol restrictions have helped a lot, but much more could be done. In some states, it is legal to have drive-through liquor stores where drivers can discretely buy liquor without getting out of their cars! I kid you not. Here is a photo of one in a college town near me:

This scene should be as scary as guns!

My favorite history teacher I’ve ever had was Mr. Andrews of Newton High School. His son was a couple years older than me and was accidentally killed when he and a friend were playing with some guns at his friend’s house. As a result, when I became a parent, I was nervous about my kids playing at friends’ homes if I didn’t know whether they would keep guns in places the kids could access. But swimming pools should be a much bigger worry. About twice as many kids die of drowning than by accidental firearm discharge and alcohol use is involved in 70% of water recreation deaths.

Firewater is a good name for alcohol because it is dangerous stuff.

Posted in Public Finance, Violence & Peace
8 comments on “Guns don’t kill people. Alcohol kills people.
  1. […] about them. It is more dangerous to have a backyard swimming pool than to have a gun in the closet. Alcohol use is more dangerous and tobacco kills many more people. Driving to school is much more dangerous than mass shooters in […]

  2. […] I agree that a lot of data supports the thesis that too many guns contributes to more gun deaths, gun availability isn’t the only thing that leads to gun deaths. Other factors are often more important. Otherwise the US would have the […]

  3. […] NIH, about 1,825 college students die from alcohol-related injuries every year so we should be much more worried about alcohol than mass shooters.  Even worse, “Approximately 1,100 [college] students die by suicide each year” according to […]

  4. […] I’ve written before, I’m not a gun-control advocate because there are lots of other factors that can reduce […]

  5. […] Black people mostly kill black people and white people mostly kill white people This is because: […]

  6. […] plagued the commoners, but even fairly modest consumption of alcohol on a regular basis is shown to reduce life expectancy and large quantities of alcohol knocks off years of life. Elites were more likely to engage in […]

  7. john says:

    I really I liked your article and hoped to share it when it was about guns and alcohol. Then until I saw you bring politics in it by saying something about what liberals think. Your political propaganda ruined and otherwise top rate article. And I am not of any political persuasion. But I do think alcohol is far more dangerous than just about anything. Even alcohol kills more people than all illicit drugs combined.

    • Thanks for the comment, and sorry that something seemed offensive. I was quoting Tyler Cowen who is a libertarian and not really strictly either liberal nor conservative. I’m not a libertarian and I disagree with him on a lot, but I do agree with his assertion that most liberals would say that machine guns are worse than alcohol. Do you think that is incorrect? I doubt there is any polling data, and it just seems common sense to me that most people (including most moderates too) would believe that, but perhaps I’m wrong. Thanks again.

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