Gun Control: Fashionable Prohibition for Modern Lawmakers
With the latest school shooting, all humane people are expected to jump up and do something to stop the next shooting. The most popular response among media pundits and national policymakers right now is an expansion of the various prohibitions now in place against guns.
For anyone familiar with the history of prohibitions on inanimate objects, however, these appeals to prohibition as a “common sense” solution are rather less convincing.
Americans and others have tried a wide variety of similar prohibitions before, and with mixed results at best. Nowadays, prohibitions on drugs are in decline as states continue to unravel prohibitions of the past and make the nature of prohibition less drastic and less punitive. And, of course, the prohibition of alcohol has been dead for decades.
The prohibitions of old have been deemed failures. But fortunately for prohibitionists, there’s a fashionable form of modern prohibition that won’t go away.
Gun control – Why Not Ban Alcohol?
Now, I know what some of you are saying: “Hey, McMaken, you can’t compare alcohol prohibition to gun prohibition because alcohol mostly only hurts the drinker, while guns have many harmful side effects for the public at large.”
But the fact that anyone could think this shows just how well the anti-alcohol-prohibition rhetoric has worked. Since the repeal of prohibition in the 1930s, alcohol has taken on an image of fun and relaxation. Sure, some people use it irresponsibly, we are told, but for the most part, people should be allowed the freedom to use it. For those high risk behaviors linked to alcohol, such as drunk driving, we’ll regulate that, but the ownership of alcohol itself, of course, should be open to all adults.
And yet, in the face of this laissez-faire attitude toward drinking, we could offer a host of illustrations of how alcohol is in fact a public safety menace.
Indeed, prior to the 1920s, during the heyday of the temperance movement, alcohol’s image was as anything but a mere benign luxury among a sizable portion of the population.
While many people today assume that the prohibitionists argued along puritanical lines, and emphasized the dangers of moral ruin, the arguments against alcohol were really far more complex than that.
The prohibitionists argued — quite plausibly, mind you — that any number of social ills could be addressed through alcohol prohibition. Chief among these was the fact that many families, including children, were often rendered destitute by the drinking of the male head of the household who was unable to hold down a job due to his addiction. Moreover, cases of child abuse and spousal abuse were clearly connected to alcohol consumption, as were household accidents and accidents on the job.
When breadwinners were killed or injured on the job, or if a drunk spent half his income at a bar on payday, families often ended up on the local dole. Or worse.
And there was a connection to non-domestic violence too. Public drunkenness, bar fights, and the deadly and irresponsible use of guns were connected to drinking as well.
Ironically, back then though, it wasn’t the guns that were seen as the problem (although gun control advocates did exist). For many, the problem was that drunks were irresponsibly using guns and that the common-sense solution was to prevent them from getting drunk.
Gun control – Guns are Less Deadly than Alcohol
Nowadays, 88,000 deaths per year are attributed to alcohol abuse, and thirty people per day in the United States die in alcohol-related auto accidents. Heavy drinkers are more prone to violence, suicide, and risky sexual behavior.
In fact, if we compare these statistics, we find that alcohol abuse is significantly more deadly and problematic than misuse of guns. There were 36,000 gun-related deaths (including suicides and accidents) in the US in 2013, and as a percentage of all causes of death, alcohol-related deaths are more than twice as common as gun deaths.
What’s more, one-third of gun deaths are alcohol related. Thus, according to prohibitionist logic, we could eliminate one-third of gun-related deaths overnight by prohibiting alcohol consumption. So why aren’t we doing it? If it could save one life, wouldn’t it be worth it?
Most have concluded that saving one life is not, in fact, worth it. In practice, alcohol-related deaths (including those inflicted against third-party victims) are treated very differently than gun-related deaths.
For example, it is clear that alcohol is a central component in the more than 10,000 drunk-driving deaths that occur each year. So, is the response to restrict certain types of alcohol or populations that can buy it? Are background checks instituted to prevent sales to incorrigible drunk drivers? No, the response is to ban how alcohol is used in certain cases.
On the other hand, in response to the 11,000 gun-related murders per year, the prescribed response is to restrict the guns themselves. But, if we were to apply the same logic behind drunk driving bans to gun violence, the only gun control legislation we would be considering would be something along the lines of special penalties for carrying firearms when mentally impaired, on psychotropic drugs, when sight impaired, or in crowded areas where accidents are more likely to affect bystanders. The mere purchase or ownership of guns would not be restricted, just as the purchase or ownership of alcohol is not restricted in response to drunk driving.
Indeed, if we add to drunk driving all the cases of spousal abuse and child abuse and public cases of assault, bar fights, and more, it becomes clear that alcohol is in fact far more damaging to the social fabric than guns have ever been. Once we factor in the harm that alcohol does to the user himself, in terms of health problems, riskier sex, and suicides, the numbers look even worse for alcohol.
Gun control – Does Prohibition Work?
Now, you might be thinking, “yes, but if gun control works, shouldn’t we try it?” Unfortunately, there are few reasons to believe that it would work, or that the cure would not be worse than the disease.
Mark Thornton illustrated years ago that alcohol prohibition led to more alcohol consumption, and more consumption of harder distilled drinks versus more mild beer and wine beverages. In addition to the complete failure to end the behavior it targeted, Americans also became acquainted with numerous unpleasant side effects of prohibition including more organized crime and more government harassment of peaceful citizens.
Gun control – Comparing the States
As far as gun control prohibition goes, thanks to a diversity of gun control laws among the American states, we can compare between gun ownership levels in the states and homicide rates.
And what we find is that there is no correlation between the level of restrictiveness in gun control laws and the murder rate. Most recently, Eugene Volokh ran the numbers looking at homicide rates and the so-called Brady Score assigned to states by gun-control advocates. Volokh even provides the data so you can analyze it yourself. (Volokh explains why homicides and not “gun deaths” is the important metric here.)
We can also see that this is quite plausible