Personal Freedom

Apply Gun Rights Arguments to Alcohol Policy

“If there is even one thing we can do to reduce this violence, if even one life can be saved, we have an obligation to try.”
—President Obama

“Within three months of the precrime program, the homicidal rates in the District of Columbia had reduced 90 percent.”
—Minority Report, 2002

In the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting, gun control advocates pressed with renewed vigor to revisit and restore federal gun control measures in an attempt to crack down on violence. Conservative opposition was loud and clear: minimizing tragedy and preventing violence is an insufficient basis to impose such regulations. These measures, touted by their proponents as “common sense,” infringe upon one’s right to acquire and use a firearm. While some studies have suggested that gun control measures can save lives, that fact alone does not persuade many who instead insist that the government lacks the legitimate authority to punish peaceful people because other gun owners have been irresponsible or outright criminal in their actions.

Simply put, supporters of so-called “gun rights” believe that preventing gun violence is not a reason to impose such regulations. They argue that despite such regulations, those who want to obtain and use guns will do so regardless of what the law says. These regulations will only violate individual rights, and turn innocent people into criminals.

We agree with these concerns, and share the belief that rights must trump statistics; preventing unnecessary violence and death is an important objective, but regulations in pursuit of such an end must have a legitimate basis—and one which imposes justice upon criminals, and not innocent individuals. Accordingly, we suggest that to be consistent one must apply the same argument to other policy areas, such as alcohol.

Currently in every state in the nation, the maximum percentage of blood-alcohol content (BAC) permitted while driving is 0.08%. This means that the average person is prohibited from driving after consuming two to three alcoholic beverages, for fear that the impairment caused by the alcohol might lead to the person’s own injury, or worse, the injury or death of an innocent third party. The Utah legislature reduced the level from 0.10% in 1983.

Last week, the National Transportation Safety Board announced its new recommendation that all states should reduce their BAC maximum levels to 0.05%, pointing to studies which suggest that many lives could be saved with such a move. “There are at least 10,000 reasons to tackle this issue,” said Deborah A. P. Hersman, chairwoman of the NTSB’s board, alluding to the estimated number of people who die annually in alcohol-related traffic accidents. The organization, which has no enforcement authority and can only recommend its policy proposals, points to other countries that have been operating with a 0.05% limit to suggest that their lower rates of alcohol-related traffic accidents merit implementation in America as well.

Her same argument is easily (and often) used in the gun control debate as well. In the United States, 8,775 people died in 2010 at the hands of another person who used a gun. In 2008, there were 78,622 nonfatal firearm injuries in this country. Suffice it to say that there are similar reasons “to tackle this issue,” and yet it is not so simple as to suggest that increased regulations on peaceful people is the proper approach.

It is problematic to claim that simply lowering the legal limit is the key to preventing disaster and death. According to a 2008 survey by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, some 20% of drivers drink and drive each year. A 2010 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that approximately 112 million alcohol-impaired driving episodes took place in 2010 (a number that has declined 30% from 2006).

Out of those 112 million episodes, some two million of them (using 2000 data) involved a crash of some sort. 96.7% of the crashes involved a BAC of over 0.08%, comprising the vast majority of instances in which a drunk driver was involved in a car accident of some sort. While some anti-alcohol activists in Utah will soon be pushing for a reduction in the state’s BAC limit, we should all keep in mind who would be targeted under such a policy change. As one report notes, most instances are already in violation of the law, and a reduction would therefore be irrelevant to them:

The Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice’s 2012 DUI report to the Utah Legislature states the average reported BAC level of a DUI arrest in the state last year was .14, nearly twice the current legal limit. Only 10.2 percent of reported BAC levels of 2012 arrests were within the .08 to .10 range, and only 5.9 percent of those arrested for DUI blew under the legal limit.

The report further notes that, “DUI arrests last year decreased 5.7 percent from 2011 and 14.7 percent from 2010,” in part due to the public becoming increasingly educated about the dangers associated with drinking and driving.

Herein lies the problem with those who support increased enforcement and regulation—especially against those who are innocent and would not have gotten in a car accident, let alone harmed themselves or anybody else. Persuasion and education have a more profound affect upon behavior than do punishment and law enforcement. While some view the law as a “teacher” and believe that time in jail may serve to deter further bad behavior, this position sidesteps the argument regarding whether such a law (and its enforcement) is legitimate. While lives may be saved by increasingly punishing drunk drivers, at what cost does such a “Minority Report”-esque policy come? To what degree will Utahns support incarcerating and fining those who have not harmed another person, but instead have run afoul of the state’s BAC decree?

Lowering the BAC limit will only exacerbate the problem, and make such hanging questions more relevant. Instead of treating drinking and driving as a crime, alternatives should be increasingly explored to help educate and persuade people regarding the potentially violent results of such a decision.

Further, we believe that the structure of DUI law in the state needs to be reworked, such that the mere acts of drinking and then driving are not punished. Instead, actual violations of others’ rights (including their right to life by injuring or killing them) should be increasingly penalized in cases where the driver was knowingly negligent, such as in the case of consuming alcohol prior to operating the motor vehicle. Under this type of penalty system, only actual crimes would be penalized, and those who might drink and drive in the future would be put on notice that the consequences of hurting somebody else would be extra severe should they do so while impaired by intoxication.

Instead, the current system penalizes those who might hurt somebody in the future (but who in the vast majority of cases do not). Police agencies effectively become involved in pursuing precrime, punishing people before they have done actually done anything to harm another person. The problem with this system lies in the fact that influences are being criminalized by themselves, as opposed to their associated actions. Many other influences cause drivers to be distracted, such as talking to others in the car, or talking on the phone, or looking at billboards, applying makeup, eating, daydreaming, or any number of other things that can and do impact the cognitive ability of a driver. Instead of adding such things to the list of actions which should be prohibited by law under the threat of punishment, drivers should be educated to minimize or remove such distractions, with the knowledge that they may lead to harming another person, and if that were to occur, the penalties would be more harsh.

If we reject increased regulations for preventing injury and homicide with a firearm, then it makes sense to apply such a standard to other circumstances as well. (Some may argue that the second amendment justifies the opposition to gun control on grounds that owning and using a gun is a right, but they usually fail to recognize the ninth amendment which makes clear that individuals have plenty of other rights [including ingesting alcohol].) Opposing gun control regulations does not mean that one is okay with the many gun-related crimes that take place, just as opposing lowering the BAC limit does not imply that one wants drunk drivers out on the streets.

Drunk driving will happen. It has happened ever since cars were invented. Lowering the legal limit will not stop it from happening. Setting the legal limit at 0% will not stop it from happening. Thus, the proper approach to resolving this problem satisfactorily does not lie in tweaking an arbitrary standard. Policy makers and concerned citizens should instead focus their efforts on how to prevent the problem before it occurs—not by threatening innocent people and enforcing an arbitrary standard, but by educating drivers about the consequences to drinking while driving, and ensuring that all are informed that their actions will be strongly punished if and when they harm another person.