Should we take drunk drivers’ gun licences away?

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WATCH: Should we take drunk drivers' gun licences away? – May 2, 2019

Who shouldn’t we trust to own a gun?

Canada’s licencing system keeps an eye out for applicants with a record of violence — especially toward intimate partners — and people with certain mental health issues. About 800-odd Canadians are refused licences every year, mostly because they seem to be a danger to themselves or others, or have lied on the application.

But a bill making its way through the California legislature would disarm a different group of people: drunk drivers.

London, Ont.-based firearms writer Andrew Somerset would like to see something similar in Canada.

“The fact of the matter is that we know that drinking and then getting in your car to drive is highly irresponsible behaviour, whether you have a drinking problem or not,” he said.

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“We should not be giving firearms licences to people who show that kind of bad judgment. It just makes sense.”

The California bill would impose a 10-year gun ownership ban on people with two or more convictions over a three-year period for drunk driving, public intoxication or impaired driving causing death.

The bill is largely based on research by University of California, Davis Prof. Garen Wintemute. A study of 4,066 1977 California handgun purchasers that Wintemute led found that a prior record of alcohol-related crimes strongly predicted future violent or firearm-related crime over the next 13 years.

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“What we found is that, in comparison to people who purchased handguns and had no criminal history, those who had one or more DUI convictions were at roughly fourfold increased risk of subsequent arrest for a firearm-related or violent crime, after adjusting for differences in age, race, sex and so forth,” Wintemute explained.

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As-yet-unpublished research looking at 116,000 2001 California handgun purchasers, following them through the end of 2013, shows very similar results, he says.

Several gun organizations in the state oppose the bill, including the California Rifle and Pistol Association and the Gun Owners of California, which compared it to the movie Minority Report.

“The key theory is that firearm injury and death will be reduced if guns are kept out of the hands of people who, based on their condition or past behaviour, are determined to be at risk of future acts of violence,” the group wrote in a statement. “In other words, even if you have never committed an act of violence, the state can yank your rights because of what they THINK you MIGHT do.”

In committee hearings in March, Wintemute estimated that it would affect about 1,500 people a year in California.

“From a common-sense perspective, it’s a no-brainer,” said University of Toronto gun violence expert Jooyoung Lee. “I see it addressing a lot of things, and impulsivity is one of them.”

“There are a number of studies that address how shootings often occur because of impulsivity, because of circumstances that lead one party to blow up in anger or in rage or in shame, and the firearm becomes a tool to address those intense emotions,” Lee added.

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Thornhill, Ont.-based lawyer Edward Burlew, who specializes in firearms issues, disagrees.

“What else should be taken away from me?” he asked. “You can’t just look at the gun — what other things should I be deprived of?

“Should I be deprived of my knife to cut my vegetables? Should I be deprived of rope in case I might hang myself? What should I be deprived of?”

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In an emailed statement, the RCMP said it could not say how many Canadians convicted of impaired driving also had firearms licences.

The force would not directly answer a question about the extent to which impaired driving is taken into account in making decisions about an individual’s gun licence.

“The Royal Canadian Mounted Police Canadian Firearms Program employs an in-depth licence applicant screening process for those wishing to acquire a firearms licence,” spokesperson Michelle Schmidt wrote in an email.

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“Under the Firearms Act, chief firearms officers of jurisdictions are authorized to refuse an application for a licence or revoke a firearms licence, based on their assessment of the individual’s risk to public safety.”

Impaired driving isn’t listed among the reasons why a licence can be refused or revoked in the Firearms Act. (Several cannabis-related offences are on the list, though, including having more than four plants in a house and growing marijuana while underage.)

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Somerset argues that “continuous eligibility screening” systems that are set up to screen gun licence holders for reports of violence could be set up to watch for drunk driving charges as well.

He also makes a case for taking gun licences away from drivers who lose their licences through too many traffic offences, if the offences are serious enough.

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“I think of stunt driving and street racing. That’s the kind of offence that indicates highly irresponsible behaviour. It’s not just losing your licence because you were caught speeding a few kilometres over the limit on the 401 a few too many times — you’ve done something that’s recognized as a serious offence that indicates that you’re not responsible enough to have a driver’s licence,” said Somerset.

Public intoxication, on the other hand, doesn’t in itself endanger other people.

“It doesn’t indicate a pattern of behaviour and it doesn’t indicate a high level of irresponsibility. A lot of people are inebriated to some extent from time to time. It’s not quite the same thing as jumping in a car and driving,” he added.

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Disarming drunk drivers is common in Britain — sometimes after only one offence

British gun laws let police revoke a gun licence if “the holder is of intemperate habits … or is otherwise unfitted to be entrusted with a firearm.”

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A 1991 English court ruling upheld a police decision to take a man’s shotgun certificate away after his third impaired-driving conviction, saying that his drunk driving “demonstrated irresponsibility and lack of self-control.”

Ten years later, in Scotland, a court upheld a police decision to take a shotgun certificate away from a man with one conviction for refusing to provide a breath sample, “given the individual’s general attitude towards the offence.” (In Britain, taking a gun licence away after only one impaired driving-related conviction is rare but not unheard of, and the courts have supported police who wanted to do it.)

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The concept of trust is central … and any material shortfall in the general trustworthiness of the firearm certificate holder must call in question his suitability to continue to hold that type of certificate,” a Scottish judge wrote in a separate case in 2003.

The judge referred in his decision to the “supportive connection … between grossly irresponsible behaviour with a motor vehicle (by driving it under the influence of drink) and a risk of irresponsibility in the use of a shotgun.”

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Alcohol-related crime, traffic charges linked to gun accidents in Vermont

A study of people responsible for accidental shootings in Vermont showed that they were more likely to have a background that included arrests involving alcohol as well as crashes and traffic citations.

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The authors suggested that “poor control of aggressive tendencies results in intentional acts of violence and unintentional injury, both on the highway and elsewhere.”

“We often have this image of shootings as if they were these very carefully plotted-out crimes where a person goes to great lengths to orchestrate the shooting, but in fact, when you talk to both victims and offenders of gun violence, you realize that there are a lot of shootings where a person is just upset,” Lee explained.

“We do know that intoxication lowers inhibitions to violence and aggression, and this is particularly salient in domestic violence cases, where people who have a history of alcohol abuse and domestic violence can fly beneath the radar.”

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