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Background Checks for Alcohol: A Response

photograph of gun with bullets and glass of alcohol on table

The other night, my wife and I went to our local brewery. They had posted on Facebook that their Double IPA is back. It is, and this is no exaggeration, one of the best beers I have tasted – strong, without being overpowering, and a smoothness rarely found at such an ABV. I had two pints of it. Tonight, I’ll have a couple of glasses of wine with a few friends.

None of this should sound particularly controversial. But, in a thought-provoking piece in this venue, Tim Hsiao argues we should treat this like buying a firearm, and if there should be background checks for firearms then there should be background checks for buying alcohol (and if there shouldn’t be checks for alcohol, there shouldn’t be checks for firearms). I want to probe his argument by looking at some of the background assumptions in place.

Every few months, there seems to be a piece on Americans’ relationship with alcohol (sometimes sponsored by companies with a vested interest in stoking some fear). A recent piece by Kate Julian in The Atlantic is badly titled “America Has a Drinking Problem.” It’s a bad title because it falls into the trope of always writing about drink in terms of a problem, but the piece is much more nuanced: “Am I drinking too much? And: How much are other people drinking? And: Is alcohol actually that bad? The answer to all these questions turns, to a surprising extent, not only on how much you drink but on how and where and with whom you do it.”

The conclusion is that the sort of drinking I spelled out in the opening paragraph is good. Summarizing Edward Slingerland’s Drunk, Julian notes how drinking helps us be more creative and enhances social bonding. And she points out that, especially after the asocial years of pandemic living, being sociable is positively good for us and supports our health.

But not all social drinking sees the benefits outweigh the cost. Drinking can make us aggressive, damage our livers, and can be addictive. But what is key, and what Julian stresses, is that there are different forms of drinking. And there is a large class of drinking – moderate social drinking – that has a substantial benefit.

To recognize this undermines Hsiao’s argument that we should treat firearms and drinking the same. His argument is that alcohol abuse causes more deaths than firearm use and is involved in many more crimes. But this blunt comparison runs all forms of drinking together and ignores the benefits. The fact that a large class of drinking plausibly is a net social good means that Hsiao must do much more work to reach his conclusion. He needs to show that firearm ownership is as beneficial as drinking and that the costs of background checks are similarly proportionate. Otherwise, the analogy falls apart.

But what are the net benefits of firearm ownership? For one, there is hunting, which provides both a source of nutrition and an important social activity for many. But a 2013 study found that around half of gun owners own a firearm for self-defense purposes. There is an argument – a contested one – that owning a gun for self-defense actually increases your risk of harm, because it increases the risk of an accident, misuse, and even suicide. Further, the U.S. has a much greater rate of gun violence than other wealthy countries, many of which have stricter controls on gun ownership.

So, we have seen a plausible argument that alcohol consumption is (in general, or at least in a major set of cases) good, and have also seen a plausible argument that owning a gun – given the risk of misuse, accidents, suicide, or violence – may well be a net negative. Plausibly, we can increase the chance that firearms are used properly if we mandate background checks that increase the likelihood that firearm use will be a net positive: appropriate self-defense or hunting, say.

Perhaps this sets up an argument that some firearms and some drinking should not face background checks, but others should. But the other side of the coin is that background checks on any form of alcohol consumption will be much more onerous than checks on firearms. For one, alcohol is more immediately consumed than firearms are used. After all, few people buy a firearm for immediate self-defense or a last-second hunting trip, but we buy beers for immediate consumption or a bottle of wine to take to a dinner party.

Further, there are many more individual transitions involving alcohol. Americans buy around 40 million firearms a year and there are around 400 million firearms in the U.S.. According to one estimate, the average drinking-age adult drinks around 200 pints of beer a year (to say nothing of cider, wine, or liquor). And there are, conservatively, 200 million drinking-age adults in the states. I’ve struggled to get any precise statistic on the number of transactions involving alcohol per year, but if 200 million adults drink around 200 pints of beer each (even if they’re buying packs of 16 cans), it isn’t hard to see that there will be vastly more transactions involving alcohol than the 40 million firearms sales a year.

Even if drinking alone or binge drinking is a net loss, it would be onerous to get everybody to either undergo a background check or somehow prove that they are drinking socially. For Hsiao’s argument to go through, he would have to show that the costs of drinking so outweigh the benefits of social drinking that they justify treating alcohol purchases like firearm purchases, and this needs to take account of the extra cost involved: people buy alcohol much more regularly than they buy firearms.

Background Checks for Alcohol

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.


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.

Re-evaluating Addiction: The Immoral Moralizing of Alcoholics Anonymous

photograph of church doorway with chairs arranged

As of 2019, Alcoholics Anonymous boasts more than 2 million members across 150 countries, making it the most widely implemented form of addiction treatment worldwide. The 12-step program has become ubiquitous within medical science and popular culture alike, to the extent that most of us take its potency for granted. According to Eoin F. Cannon’s The Saloon and the Mission: Addiction, Conversion, and the Politics of Redemption in American Culture, A.A. has “spread its ideas and its phraseology as a natural language of recovery, rather than as a framework with an institutional history and a cultural genealogy . . . A.A.’s deep cultural penetration is most evident in the way the recovery story it fostered can convey intensely personal, experiential truth, largely free from the implications of persuasion or imitation that attached to its precursors.” And yet, medical science continues to debate the effectiveness of A.A., or if it’s even effective at all. Critics have pointed out that the organization’s moral approach to suffering and redemption leaves much to be desired for many addicts.

It’s worth beginning with a basic overview of the social and historical context of A.A. The organization has its roots in the Oxford Group, a fellowship of Christian evangelical ministers who believed in the value of confession for alleviating the inherent sinfulness of humanity. Bill Wilson, who would go on to co-found Alcoholics Anonymous in 1935, was a member of this group, and based many of the founding principles of his organization on the teachings of the Oxford Group. A.A. was also rooted in a much broader historical moment. As Cannon explains, “A.A. embraced the disease concept of alcoholism in an era of rising medical authority and popular psychology. It formulated a spirituality that used the language of traditional Christian piety but was personal and pragmatic enough to sit comfortably with postwar prosperity.” Also crucial was “the evangelical energies and professional expertise of its early members, many of whom were experienced in marketing and public relations.” A.A.’s marketing was so effective at embedding the organization in popular culture that virtually all depictions of addiction and recovery have been colored by the 12-steps-approach, even into the 21st century.

Furthermore, the Great Depression was ending as the group achieved national prominence, and its philosophy was closely aligned with that of the New Deal. As Cannon explains, the pain of the economic crisis (which was characterized by contemporaries as a kind of drunken irresponsibility) was transformed into an opportunity for a moral makeover, a narrative pushed by FDR and the New Deal that A.A. either seized upon or unconsciously imitated. Cannon explains that “recovering narrators described their experiences of decline and crisis drew on the same kind of social material that, writ large, defined the national problem: the bewildering failure of self-reliant individualism, as evidenced in job loss, privation, and family trauma. A.A. narrative, just like FDR’s New Deal story, interpreted this failure as a hard-earned lesson about the limits of self-interest.” In this sense, A.A. is hardly apolitical or ahistorical. It was forged by political and economic currents of the early 20th century, and its ascendancy was hardly natural or inevitable.

The spiritual dimension of A.A. is impossible to ignore. The Oxford Group’s foundational influence is evident in the famous the 12-step program: for example, steps 2 and 3 read,

“2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

3.. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we

understood Him.”

The final step, “Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs,” sounds like a call for religious conversion. Most would agree that medical treatment should be secular, so why is alcoholism an exception?

Furthermore, an emphasis on spirituality doesn’t necessarily make addiction treatment more effective. A 2007 study conducted for the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion acknowledges that “Studies focusing on religiosity as a protective factor tend to show a weak to moderate relationship to substance use and dependence . . . Studies that have examined religiosity as a personal resource in treatment recovery also tend to report weak to moderate correlations with treatment.” However, the 2007 study takes issue with this data. The researchers argue that most previous studies rely “on the assumption that religiosity, although an outcome of socialization, is an internal attribute that functions as a resource to promote conventional behavior . . . An alternative model to this individualistic, psychological framework is a sociological model where religion is viewed as an attribute of a social group.” In other words, we focus too much on how religion functions for individuals instead of how religion functions in a social context.

Rather, this study uses the “moral community” hypothesis, first articulated by sociologists Stark and Bainbridge, as a framework for understanding addiction treatment. This theory argues that individual interactions with religion (how much importance you place on it or specific beliefs you subscribe to) are not as important as your entrenchment in a religious community, which is the ultimate predictor of long-term commitment to and effectiveness of treatment. The results of the 2007 study seem to support this idea; the data “revealed that an increase in church attendance and involvement in self-help groups were better predictors of posttreatment alcohol and drug use than the measure of individual religiosity.” The study found that “individuals with higher levels of religiosity tended to have higher levels of commitment” to AA, but more broadly, “in some programs religiosity functioned as a positive resource whereas in other programs it served as a hindrance to recovery.” In other words, religion isn’t universally helpful, depending on the person and how easy they find it to assimilate into their moral community. Perhaps those who already have incorporated organized religion into their life will be better equipped for group participation in the context of addiction recovery. What all of this seems to suggest is that A.A. is only effective if you’re already receptive to its framework, which hardly makes it a cure-all for alcoholism. Non-Christians and atheists who drink are more or less left out in the cold.

In fact, there are very few studies that conclusively support A.A. as the best or only treatment plan for alcoholism. As writer Gabrielle Glaser pointed out in an article for The Atlantic, “Alcoholics Anonymous is famously difficult to study. By necessity, it keeps no records of who attends meetings; members come and go and are, of course, anonymous. No conclusive data exist on how well it works.” The few studies that have tested A.A.’s effectiveness tend to find less than impressive results. For example, psychiatrist Lance Dodes estimated in his 2015 book The Sober Truth: Debunking the Bad Science Behind 12-Step Programs and the Rehab Industry that the actual rate of success for the A.A. program is somewhere between 5 and 8 percent, based on retention rates and long-term commitment. As of 2017, there are 275 research centers devoted to studying alcohol addiction worldwide. The majority of research is conducted in multi-disciplinary research institutions, and nearly half of all research on alcoholism comes out of the U.S, which given how prominent the A.A. approach is here, may skew what facets of addiction are given attention by researchers.

Despite a dearth of proof, A.A. claims to have a 75% percent success rate. According to the movement’s urtext Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How Many Thousands of Men and Women Have Recovered from Alcoholism (affectionately referred to as “The Big Book” by seasoned A.A. members),

“Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path. Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves . . . They are not at fault; they seem to have been born that way.”

While alcoholism can have a genetic component, the idea that some people are simply doomed to be incurable because of the way they were born (or that any treatment plan for addiction can be “simple”) is deeply troubling. Reading this passage from the Big Book, one can’t help but notice a parallel to early 20th-century eugenicists like Walter Wasson, who argued in 1913 that alcoholics (who he labeled “mental defectives”) should be “segregated and prevented from having children” so as not to pass down their condition and further pollute the gene pool. Eugenicists believed that alcoholism was incurable, and while A.A. ostensibly believes that it can be cured, they still believe that some are genetically destined to always drink. If their treatment plan for you doesn’t work, it’s simply your own fault, and you’ll never be able to get help at all.

Since its post-Depression inception, A.A. has relied on a moral framework that places blame on the individual rather than society at large. Alcoholism is understood as an innate failure of the individual, not a complex condition brought about by a number of economic, social, and genetic factors. As one former A.A. member explained,

“The AA programme makes absolutely no distinction between thoughts and feelings – a key factor in cognitive behavioural therapy, which is arguably a more up-to-date form of mental health technology. Instead, in AA, alcoholism is caused by ‘defects of character,’ which can only be taken away by surrender to a higher power. So, in many ways, it’s a movement based on emotional subjugation . . . anything you achieve in AA is through God’s will rather than your own. You have no control over your life, but the higher power does.”

Many individuals have found comfort and support in A.A., but it seems that the kind of moral community it offers is only accessible to those with a religious bent and predisposition to the treatment plan. For those who drink to escape crushing poverty, racial inequality, or the drudgery of capitalism, A.A. often offers pseudoscience instead of results, moralizing condemnation instead of medical treatment and genuine understanding.

Dry January

photograph of New Year's Resolutions list

The beginning of the year is often the time when people start thinking about the changes they want to make in their lives. While traditionally this has come in the form of New Year’s resolutions, it has become more popular recently to see January in particular as a time to abstain. Two of the more recent popular forms of January abstinence are “Dry January” – in which one does not drink any alcohol for the month – and “Veganuary” – in which one eats only a vegan diet for the month. There is, of course, nothing special about January that makes it a particularly good month from which to remove alcohol or animal products from one’s diet, but it is no doubt the feeling of a fresh beginning that comes with the new year, combined with potential regrets from overindulgence from the holidays, that explain how these trends have caught on.

There seems to be something virtuous about abstaining from things that you like but are bad for you. So should you be joining in and cutting out alcohol and animal products for the month? Is this really what the virtuous life requires?

First things first: there are clear health benefits to drinking less alcohol. While we have no doubt all come across articles of varying degrees of clickbait-ness proclaiming the health benefits of moderate drinking (perhaps “antioxidants” are mentioned), there is little reason to think that alcohol consumption can actively do any good, at least in terms of one’s physical health. That’s not to say that any level of alcohol consumption will necessarily cause a great amount of harm, but rather that it should probably be seen as an indulgence, as opposed to something that’s actually good for you. There is also reason to think that reducing meat consumption (especially red meat) can have many health benefits; additionally, there are persuasive ethical arguments – both in terms of preventing harm to animals and protection of the environment – that should incline us towards eating less meat. So it does seem that we have plenty of reason to cut down on both alcohol and meat.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that complete abstinence is what’s required, though. First, it is not definitive that abstinence months will, in fact, accomplish the results they aim to. On the one hand, there are some concerns that there empirical evidence about the effectiveness of abstinence campaigns like Dry January, and that as a result it’s not clear whether it could actually result in more harm in some portions of the population. Ian Hamilton at York University worries that,

“Although not the intention, people may view their 31 days of abstinence as permission to return to hazardous levels of consumption till next New Year’s day. ‘I’ve had a month off, so now I can drink as much as I did before, ignoring the need for regular breaks from alcohol.’”

On the other hand, however, there are some tentative studies that do suggest that participating in Dry January does, in fact, result in lower alcohol consumption 6 months later, although there are perhaps some limitations to such studies (self-reports of alcohol consumption generally need to be taken with a grain of salt, there are many variations within a population that are difficult to control for, etc.)

With regards to Veganuary, some have worried that the difficulty in changing one’s diet so drastically – especially if one is used to eating a lot of meat – could backfire, resulting in people being less likely to try to adopt such a diet long-term. Some research suggests that campaigns aimed at reducing, as opposed to completing eliminating meat from one’s diet can be effective at reducing meat consumption long-term. There is also the worry that such diets are just not feasible for those who do not have access to good vegan food options, or who are unable to afford them.

So should you participate in Dry January and Veganuary? Well, that depends. As I mentioned above, there is nothing about the month of January that makes it a particularly important time to start being virtuous. If there are moral reasons to drink less and eat fewer animal products, then, these reasons apply just as equally at all other times of year, as well. And just because you’ve done what you ought to for a month does not mean that you’re off the hook until 2021. There is also reason to think that aiming towards moderation as opposed to immediate and complete elimination can be a good way of making long-term positive changes. If not drinking for all of January means that you’ll just drink twice as much in February to make up for it then you’re hardly doing any good.

One undoubtedly positive aspect of these January abstinence campaigns, however, is that they may encourage people to reflect upon habits that might require adjusting. And concerns about rebound effects aside, there seems to be very little harm that could result from taking the month off from drinking alcohol or eating meat. With regards to Dry January in particular, Ian Gilmore from Liverpool University suggests that, “Until we know of something better, let’s support growing grassroots movements like Dry January and Dry July in Australia and take a month off.”

Why Jeff Sessions Should End his War on Marijuana

A photo of Jeff Sessions on stage

Six in 10 Americans believe that marijuana should be legalized. Yet, United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions has openly declared a “War on Marijuana.” Sessions recently reversed several policies enacted by President Obama, making it easier for prosecutors to enforce federal laws regarding marijuana in states where it is either medically or recreationally legal. So far, marijuana is recreationally legal in eight states and medically legal in 29 states and the District of Columbia, making it both a large recreational and medical industry.

Continue reading “Why Jeff Sessions Should End his War on Marijuana”

Alcohol Legislation in Utah: Drunk with Power?

The United States has long struggled with a set of deeply divided attitudes toward alcohol.  To be sure, alcohol can be quite dangerous, so it is certainly reasonable to be cautious and concerned about its use in certain contexts.  On the other hand, one of the clear lessons taught by our experiment with Prohibition is that individuals feel that restrictive alcohol policies constitute unwarranted violations of their autonomy.

Continue reading “Alcohol Legislation in Utah: Drunk with Power?”