While the gun control policies pushed in the name of “common sense” move increasingly into the realm of wishful thinking, the most common sense approach of all is being entirely ignored: ending the drug war.
Tragic mass shootings get all the media attention and tend to garner the most impassioned calls for tighter gun control laws. But gun violence related to the drug war kills many more people. If gun control advocates really want to prevent more homicides, it’s not background checks that will get us there. It’s decriminalization of drugs.
The exact magnitude of violent crime caused by the criminalization of drugs remains unknown, but we can get a reasonable starting point by looking at the data for gang- related crime. Illicit drug proceeds are the lifeblood of gang behavior, and competition over market “turf” is the primary driver of gang violence.
The government estimates that more than 2,000 homicides a year are gang-related. That’s two orders of magnitude higher than mass shootings, which on average take around 30 to 40 people’s lives a year nationwide.
America has been down this violent road before. During alcohol Prohibition in the 1920s and ’30s, violent crime, murder and killings of police officers skyrocketed as criminal cartels seized urban streets. After Prohibition ended, the murder rate declined for 11 consecutive years.
Having learned nothing from the failed experiment in Prohibition, policymakers turned their attention to banning other illegal drugs, and the streets were once again lost to criminal distribution networks.
A study commissioned by the White House in 2012 estimated that illegal American sales of marijuana, cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine alone amount to about $100 billion annually. That’s $100 billion changing hands without access to any of the official, legal mechanisms for protecting commerce or peacefully resolving disputes.
Under such circumstances, violence is inevitable. When distributors can’t rely on the law to settle disputes and deliver product, they take matters into their own hands. In the 1920s, competitors relied on tommy guns and Molotov cocktails. Today, handguns are the weapon of choice, but the violence has the same purpose.
In response to tragic, yet rare, mass shootings, gun control advocates recommend some impractical solutions. Take universal background checks. The concept has two main flaws: It’s overly burdensome to the point of unenforceability, and background checks are not an effective way to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people.
Universal checks would impose intrusive burdens on even the most routine transfers, such as between family members or between people hours away from any licensed dealer.
“Common sense” gun laws would do nothing to reduce violent crime. Ending the drug war, on the other hand, would take a $100 billion industry that currently depends on criminal violence and bring it into the peaceful marketplace.
Policymakers concerned about the violent crime in American society should stop pining for a world without guns and start looking at policies that we know will lead to substantial reductions in murders and many other forms of violent crime.
Adam Bates is a policy analyst with the Cato Institute’s Project on Criminal Justice.
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