Commentary

Decrease Gun Violence by Ending Drug War

It’s important to understand the problem and its history. Between 10,000 and 12,000 people are killed in gun crimes each year in the United States. That figure is at once unacceptably high and historically low.

The U.S. murder rate remains too high, but the public seems largely unaware that the murder rate has been falling steadily for decades.

The murder rate in 2014 was half what it was in 1994. So we’re doing something right, and there is little evidence that stricter gun laws are responsible. In fact, the number of guns in private hands and the number of states that allow people to carry firearms in public have both exploded over that same period.

If we’re serious about reducing gun crime in America, we should start by repealing the failed drug policies that drive so much of it.

Every year in the United States, there are hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of “defensive gun uses,” situations in which a law-abiding individual uses a firearm to dissuade or incapacitate a criminal aggressor.

A 2013 study commissioned by the Obama administration surveyed the literature on American gun use. The study found that nearly every scholarly estimate of defensive gun uses per year was greater than the annual number of gun crimes. The study also found that crime victims who were armed were less likely to be harmed than unarmed victims.

National debates about U.S. gun policy often occur in the aftermath of mass shootings. Unfortunately, the particular gun-control proposals that tend to follow mass shootings rarely address the specific nature of these criminals.

Mass shooters have no trouble passing or otherwise circumventing background-check requirements. Dylann Roof, Vester Flanagan, Christopher Harper-Mercer, and James Holmes all passed background checks before acquiring their firearms. The San Bernardino shooters used a straw purchaser with a clean record to pass the checks for their weapons.

Mass shooters are highly motivated attackers. They are not deterred by legal prohibition of their behavior. A person who is willing to die in order to kill cannot be deterred by statutes.

Assault-weapons bans, magazine limits, and background checks, all commonly asserted in the aftermath of tragedy, have proven insufficient to substantively reduce the crime rate or prevent mass shootings. An effective public policy must recognize these facts while respecting the constitutional rights of individuals.

So what can we do?

There is at least one policy we can implement that we know will decrease gun violence: End the drug war.

More than $100 billion changes hands every year in the illicit markets for marijuana, heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine in this country. Without access to the courts or other peaceful means of dispute resolution, the competition for access to the U.S. drug market inevitably turns violent.

We’ve been down this road before. The murder rate increased every year under alcohol prohibition and declined each year for more than a decade after Prohibition was repealed.

If we’re serious about reducing gun crime in America, we should start by repealing the failed drug policies that drive so much of it.

Gun crime is never going away, but we can take a big step in the right direction without making it more difficult for Americans to defend themselves or threatening their constitutional rights.

Adam Bates is a policy analyst at the Cato Institute’s Project on Criminal Justice.