photograph of alcohol bottles on shelf

Many people think that firearms purchasers should be subject to background checks. Polls have consistently found that more than 80% of American voters support so-called “universal background checks” on firearms purchases. Currently, federal law in the United States requires that anyone buying a firearm from an individual or business with a Federal Firearms License undergo a background check. (This requirement does not apply to those buying firearms from private sellers.)

At the same time, individuals wishing to buy alcoholic beverages are not subject to the same requirement, nor is there much (if any) public support in implementing a background check system for alcohol. To buy alcoholic beverages, one simply needs to provide identification showing that one is at least 21 years old. There is no further requirement to prove that one can safely consume alcohol.

These policies are inconsistent. The same reasoning in favor of background checks for guns applies equally (and arguably with much greater force) to background checks for alcoholic beverages. With that point in mind, I want to defend the following conditional: if there should be background checks on the purchase of guns, then there should be background checks on the purchase of alcohol.

Someone who accepts the conditional has two options. One might embrace the antecedent (modus ponens), which leaves us with an argument for more restrictive alcohol control:

  1. If there should be background checks on the purchase of guns, then there should be background checks on the purchase of alcohol.
  2. There should be background checks on the purchase of guns.
  3. Therefore, there should be background checks on the purchase of alcohol.

Alternatively, one could deny the consequent (modus tollens) and frame it as an argument against background checks as a form of gun control:

  1. If there should be background checks on the purchase of guns, then there should be background checks on the purchase of alcohol.
  2. There should not be background checks on the purchase of alcohol.
  3. Therefore, there should not be background checks on the purchase of guns.

The option that one ends up taking will depend heavily on prior background beliefs about the nature of regulation and freedom. My goal here is not to argue for one of these options over the other. It is rather to show that these policies are connected.

Why Background Checks?

Suppose we think that there should be background checks on the purchase of firearms. What would be the rationale for this policy? The obvious answer is that firearms are capable of causing great harm when put in the wrong hands. The point of a background check is to determine whether there are factors about a buyer’s criminal history that disqualify him from owning a firearm. While background checks aren’t always effective (e.g. they won’t stop someone who has no prior history), they do act as a barrier to prohibited purchasers.

How much harm do guns actually cause? Each year, around 40,000 deaths are caused by firearms incidents — a figure that includes accidents, suicides, or crimes. Around 470,000 people are victims of crimes committed using firearms. That’s quite a large number, and so it is understandable why we might want firearms purchasers to pass a background check. While background checks won’t eliminate all of these harms, they might bring down the numbers. Moreover, in comparison to a policy such as a blanket prohibition on gun ownership, background checks attempt to strike a balance between the interests of those who want to own guns for self-protection and those who want to avoid being harmed by them.

Comparing Harms: Guns vs. Alcohol

But now consider alcohol. Each year, there are around 95,000 deaths from alcohol related causes. This number includes health-related deaths, accidental deaths, and crime-related deaths. That’s more than twice the amount of deaths from guns. Alcohol also plays a significant role in violent crime: each year, there are more than three million violent crimes in which victims perceived the offender to have been drinking at the time of the offense.

The numbers show that alcohol is involved in substantially more deaths and crimes each year than firearms, yet it is very loosely regulated compared to guns. Since reducing the numbers is what we’re concerned about, shouldn’t some of the same controls for guns also apply to alcohol? If the potential for harm is what justifies background checks for guns, then it applies with even greater force to alcohol, which is orders of magnitude more harmful than firearms.

Like with guns, background checks attempt to strike a balance between the interests of those who want to imbibe responsibility and those who want to avoid being harmed by alcohol. They are a common-sense way of reducing harm that is nowhere near as burdensome as (say) total prohibition.

One might immediately object by appealing to the distinction between self-regarding actions and other-regarding actions: many of these harms involve things people do to themselves, not other people. Guns harm mainly other people, whereas alcohol harms mainly the user.

This reply won’t work. First, as far as deaths are concerned, two-thirds of gun deaths are suicides, so it is just not true that firearms kill mainly other people. If we shift our view to crime, alcohol clearly fails the test, as alcohol-related crimes affect many times more people than firearm-related crimes. But more importantly: deaths remain bad whether they’re self-inflicted or inflicted by others. The needless death of a person does not become “acceptable” or “morally neutral” simply because it was the result of his own choices.

If our goal is simply to bring down the numbers, then it doesn’t really matter how the numbers were generated or where they came from. What matters is that each “number” represents a harm. And on that point, the death of an innocent person is always a harm regardless of how it is caused. So the distinction between “self-regarding” and “other-regarding” actions becomes irrelevant.

Indeed, if we accept the harm-based rationale for background checks, then given the sheer amount of harm attributable to alcohol, there is a good case to be made for extremely restrictive forms of alcohol control that go beyond just background checks. But we needn’t go that far — the point is that the argument for background checks on guns is weaker than the argument for background checks on alcohol. If we’re going to have background checks on anything, it should be alcohol.

Implications

While my focus has been on background checks, there is a clear parallel between gun control and alcohol control. An argument for the former would also seem to be an argument for the latter, and an argument against the latter would also seem to be an argument against the former. Proponents of gun control are left with a dilemma: either we embrace background checks for gun ownership (and thus also alcohol) or we reject background checks for alcohol (and thus also background checks for gun ownership).

There is no doubt that a proposal to implement background checks on alcohol would prove to be unpopular. Many would object to it on the grounds that it is burdensome and paternalistic. But that is the price of consistency. Perhaps the better option is to reject background checks for both alcohol and guns.