If You Want To Lower Gun Crime, End The War On Drugs

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In The Atlantic, Noah Smith details some fascinating numbers about gun crimes. Many anti-gun activists and commentators have cited a study which suggests that gun deaths will surpass traffic deaths by 2015.

That’s troubling, to say the least, but a little misleading. Of that total number only a fraction – about 9,000 or 1/3 of the total – are gun murders of the sort that happened at Sandy Hook Elementary, and that fraction is shrinking because as Smith writes, “murder by gun has been falling steadily since the early 1990s.”

What makes up the bulk of that growing number are gun suicides (accidental gun deaths, for what it’s worth, are holding steady at around 500 deaths per year). That’s troubling, but not exactly the sort of “gun crime” that most Americans view as a valid justification for gun control. Those bent on ending their lives have plenty of options. Controlling guns isn’t likely to fix that problem.

But even with gun murders representing a small and shrinking part of the gun deaths, is there a way we can reduce them even faster? Yes, and that way isn’t gun control. It’s ending the “War on Drugs.”

From Smith’s article:

Reliable statistics on the number of drug-related murders in the United States are hard to come by. A 1994 Department of Justice report suggested that between a third and a half of U.S. homicides were drug-related, while a recent Center for Disease Control study found that the rate varied between 5% and 25% (a 2002 Bureau of Justice report splits the difference). Part of this variance is that “drug-related” murders are hard to define. There are murders committed by people on drugs, murders committed by addicts to get money for drugs, turf-war murders by drug suppliers, and murders committed by gangs whose principal source of income is drug sales.

But very few would argue that the illegal drug trade is a significant cause of murders. This is a straightforward result of America’s three-decade-long “drug war.” Legal bans on drug sales lead to a vacuum in legal regulation; instead of going to court, drug suppliers settle their disputes by shooting each other. Meanwhile, interdiction efforts raise the price of drugs by curbing supply, making local drug supply monopolies (i.e., gang turf) a rich prize to be fought over. And stuffing our overcrowded prisons full of harmless, hapless drug addicts forces us to give accelerated parole to hardened killers.

Ending the drug war would involve reducing all of these incentives to murder. Treating addicts in hospitals and rehab centers, instead of sticking them in prisons, would reduce demand for drugs, lowering the price and starving gangs of income while reducing their incentive to wage turf wars.

Of course, there are negatives to ending drugs too. Use could go up should using drugs lose their stigma, and that could have a deleterious impact on our society and economy. But then, I’m not entirely convinced that the “War on Drugs” is really stopping all that many people who want drugs from getting them.

You can buy marijuana, cocaine and meth in just about every single community in America. So what, exactly, are we accomplishing with drug prohibition?

As usual, the prohibition of alcohol offers lessons. The enactment of alcohol prohibition lead to a spike in crime is gangs seeking to serve the newly created black market for alcohol went to war with one another, as well as government prohibition agents. “In a study of over 30 major U.S cities during the prohibition years of 1920 and 1921, the number of crimes increased by 24%,” reports Wikipedia. “Additionally, theft and burglaries increased by 9%, homicide by 12.7%, assaults and battery rose by 13%, drug addiction by 44.6% and police department costs rose by 11.4%.”

In all the discussion and debate about mass shootings that have taken place over the last week, I’ve read one interesting statistic cited over and over again: Instances of mass shootings actually peaked in 1929. That date isn’t random. That was the height of alcohol prohibition, and a year which saw Al Capone’s infamous Valentine’s Day Massacre.

Ending the war on drugs wouldn’t end all gun crime, but it would end a lot of it. And ending the war on drugs would create new problems and headaches for America, but those problems are preferable than the problems created by drug prohibition.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com. In 2011 he was a finalist for the Watch Dog of the Year from the Sam Adams Alliance and winner of the Americans For Prosperity Award for Online Excellence. In 2013 the Washington Post named SAB one of the nation's top state-based political blogs, and named Rob one of the state's best political reporters. He writes a weekly column for several North Dakota newspapers, and also serves as a policy fellow for the North Dakota Policy Council.

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