Learn about the connections that drugs and addiction have with gun violence. The connections may not be as clear as many people think they are.

Television shows often display drug dealers carrying guns and engaging in violence. Further, when there is a mass shooting, many people across the country call for better mental health access. However, the link between guns, drugs and mental health can seem murky. Studies have shown a link between gun violence and substance use. Additionally, links between drinking and certain mental health problems may be associated with gun violence. Understanding the relationship between guns, drugs, drinking and mental health is complex.

Article at a Glance:

  • Gun violence often starts with the drug dealers in a neighborhood, then trickles down to others in the neighborhood
  • Substance abuse is closely linked to gun violence
  • Because substance abuse is a mental health issue, it is hard to separate substance abuse from mental health issues when it comes to guns
  • Most people with mental health issues are not dangerous
  • Although drinking is linked to gun violence, experts do not think it causes gun violence because so many people drink while so few are violent

Drugs and Gun Violence Statistics

Substance use is a strong risk factor for violence. In fact, 68% of substance-related murders involve guns. Of all substances, alcohol is most closely linked to gun violence. Around a third of people who are killed by guns have been drinking heavily at the time of their death. A lesser number, about a fifth, of murder victims, have cocaine in their system at the time of their death. A smaller number, just over 4%, have opioids in their system when they are killed.

Drug Use or Mental Health, Which Is To Blame?

A strong link exists between mental health and drug use. More than 25% of adults with a mental health problem also struggle with substance use. For this reason, it is hard to separate mental health from drug use when it comes to gun violence — consider that substance use itself is considered to be a mental health problem.

Mental Health and Gun Violence

Most people with mental health problems are not dangerous. Only 3% to 5% of violent acts are committed by those who have mental health issues. However, treatment may prevent violence among people with mental health problems that are thought to be dangerous. This belief is particularly true for people with conduct disorder or antisocial personality disorder, who are most prone to violence among those with mental health problems.

However, barriers to treatment exist. Psychiatric hospitals are often expensive, and there may not be a support system in place when people are discharged back home. Some laws prevent people from being committed to a hospital against their will. Therefore, if someone does not realize that they need treatment, they may not get it even if those around them see that they have a problem.

Substance Abuse and Gun Violence

Drug use is strongly linked to gun violence, especially when illegal drug sales are involved. Substance-related gun violence often starts with drug dealers, who get guns to protect their drugs. This leads to more people in the neighborhood getting guns because the drug dealers have them. Experts think this cycle leads to more violence in the community. This may be especially true among people who take drugs and have mental health issues, who have a higher risk of violence than their neighbors. Bystanders are often victims of violence as well. Research has shown that people who live with others who struggle with drugs are at a higher risk of being killed.

Drug use itself can lead to violent behavior. Some drugs like cocaine and crack are linked to violent episodes of psychosis. Among young people, heroin use is closely linked with guns. Young people who take drugs are also more likely to have a gun.

Drug use can also increase the chances of being a victim of violence. Experts think this might be due to:

  • Problems realizing that certain people or situations are risky when you are high
  • Difficulty getting away from dangerous situations when you are high
  • Violent people thinking you are an easy target because you are high

Alcohol Abuse and Gun Violence

Because drinking is linked to aggression, experts think that it may also contribute to gun violence. Drinking is further linked to violence because as the blood alcohol level rises, people have mood changes, lose their inhibitions and are more injury-prone. Therefore, doctors have found a link between drinking and being shot, being accidentally shot and committing suicide with a gun. However, more than 70% of adults have had alcohol within the past year and the vast majority of them have not been involved in violence. Therefore, experts caution that although drinking may contribute to gun violence in some cases, it does not appear to cause it.

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Editor – Thomas Christiansen
With over a decade of content experience, Tom produces and edits research articles, news and blog posts produced for Advanced Recovery Systems. Read more
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Medically Reviewed By – Dr. Jessica Pyhtila, PharmD
Dr. Jessica Pyhtila is a Clinical Pharmacy Specialist based in Baltimore, Maryland with practice sites in inpatient palliative care and outpatient primary care at the Department of Veteran Affairs. Read more

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Branas, Charles C; Han, SeungHoon; Wiebe, Douglas J. “Alcohol Use and Firearm Violence.” Epidemiologic Reviews, January 24, 2016. Accessed September 15, 2019.

U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. “Mental Health and Substance Use Disorders.” March 22, 2019. Accessed September 15, 2019.

American Psychological Association. “Gun Violence: Prediction, Prevention, and Policy.” 2013. Accessed September 15, 2019.

U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. “Mental Health Myths and Facts.” August 29, 2017. Accessed September 15, 2019.

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Hohl, Bernadette C; et al. “Association of Drug and Alcohol Use With[…] Neighborhood Levels.” Journal of the American Medical Association Internal Medicine, March 1, 2017. Accessed September 15, 2019.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.