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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.

Does the Fair Chance Act Live Up to Its Name?

close-up photograph of 'Help Wanted' sign in storefront window

With the US having one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, it is estimated that over 70 million Americans have some type of criminal record – that’s approximately one in three Americans. Regardless of how minor or major an individual’s offense is, having any kind of criminal record presents a series of obstacles to successfully reintegrating oneself back into society. The most pronounced of these is finding employment and housing – almost nine in ten employers perform background checks during the hiring process and four in five landlords do the same on prospective occupants. Research shows that employers are biased against citizens with criminal records even though they assert that this is not the case. While employers ostensibly indicate an inclination to hiring ex-convicts, evidence establishes that employer callback rates decrease by 50% for those with a criminal record. 

Crusading against such employment disparities are movements like Ban the Box, an American campaign that began in Hawaii in the late 1990s led by civil rights activists and advocates for ex-offenders, working towards removing the check box that inquires whether a job seeker has a criminal record. This campaign aims at allowing ex-convicts a better chance at employment by spotlighting their skills and qualifications in the recruitment process before being questioned about their criminal record, thereby preventing the stigma of an arrest record or a conviction ruling out their employment immediately. The basis of this campaign is that ex-convicts who struggle to find employment upon being released from prison are more likely to reoffend, which is, of course, damaging to society. 

The campaign gained momentum after the 2007-2009 recession, with activists for the campaign stating that it is necessary to remove the check box because an increasing number of Americans have criminal records as a result of harsh sentencing laws, especially for drug-related offenses and citizens are struggling to find work due to the compounded effect of high unemployment rates for ex-felons and background checks becoming more common since the 9/11 terror attacks. Moreover, marginalized communities like communities of color, sexual minorities and people with mental illnesses are disproportionately affected, with black men being six times more likely to be imprisoned than a white man and LGB (lesbian, gay and bisexual) people being three times more likely to be incarcerated than the general population.

As of 2019, 35 states and more than 150 counties and cities have implemented Ban the Box, also known as fair chance act in their hiring policies, all of which prohibit employers from asking applicants about their criminal history on a preliminary job application. Some Ban the Box laws are more elaborate, compelling employers to refrain from asking about the applicants’ criminal history until a job offer has been made or an interview has been conducted. 

Even though Ban the Box laws seem to be beneficial on the surface, some industry groups such as the National Retail Federation have openly criticized these policies for possibly exposing companies, employees, and customers to crime. The New Jersey Chamber of Commerce also condemned Ban the Box for putting employers at risk of being slapped with lawsuits from rejected applicants. Fair Chance laws put businesses in a vulnerable state, leaving them open to facing lawsuits for rejecting an ex-convict, while also having to deal with the possibility of facing negligent hiring lawsuits if an ex-convict employee reoffends at work. Moreover, businesses have found fault with Fair Chance laws for wasting the time and resources of both employers and applicants. Ban the Box laws could cause ex-convicts to waste their time applying for jobs that they will probably not get, when they could have spent their time working on applications and interviews for jobs that are known to recruit ex-offenders. Additionally, these laws would also be wasting employers’ time because if an ex-con is rejected towards the end of a hiring process after their criminal record is made known, applicants who didn’t have a criminal record but were turned away could have already found another job or could now be interested in other employment opportunities. 

Corporate concerns aside, recent research shows that Ban the Box laws have cultivated an unforeseen impediment to the very objective of the campaign. Researchers have suggested that implementing Fair Chance policies may ultimately be disadvantageous to society as a whole by decreasing chances of employment for low-skilled racial minorities. If prevented from looking into an applicant’s criminal history, employers could recourse to stereotypical assumptions based on the individual’s race or gender to extrapolate on whether or not an individual has a criminal record, which would exacerbate gender and racial disparities in the application pool. 

Ban the Box does better ex-offenders’ chances of finding employment, but on the flip side, minorities seeking employment have to bear the brunt of enhanced racial discrimination both in spite of, and because of, the Fair Chance Act. Activism like Ban the Box can and should be used to make positive social changes and challenge the status quo but at the same time, in light of recent research, must be re-evaluated.