Sunday, March 4, 2018

The best way to reduce gun violence is to legalize drugs

(Note: I took pains to substantiate each claim at the expense of brevity, so for those in a hurry, the boldfaced sentences provide a nice summary of my argument.  There is also a TL;DR at the bottom).

I always dread gun control week.  I partly dread it because it’s precipitated by the killing of innocent people, and of course that’s awful to hear about.  But unfortunately, mass killings of innocent people happen every day, and if we’re honest with ourselves, they aren’t typically enough to interrupt our lives for long.  For me, the more direct implication of these particular incidents of horrific violence is that my Facebook News Feed will be cluttered with angry people talking past one another. 

This bothers me for two reasons.  First, most of these are people I like, and it’s unpleasant when people you like start acting like dicks.  But moreso, it bothers me because I devote a considerable portion of my spare energies in life to advancing the public discourse on issues I care about.  When people talk past one another as inevitably as they do about guns, that hobby feels futile and ridiculous.  At the very least, it’s a sign the discourse needs some stewarding.

So far as I can tell, the reason my friends are talking past one another is that they’re talking about different problems, with different solutions, that they’re calling by the same name.  The so-called “epidemic of gun violence” in the United States is more like a composite of at least four separate problems: two big ones, and two tragic but sporadic distractions.  In a more sensible world, we’d try to solve these problems independently – one at a time, and in order of urgency – instead of pretending there were a quick fix for all four at once.  And if we were to do that, we’d find that the best way to achieve the largest and fastest reduction in overall gun violence is almost definitely to simply end the war on drugs, which hardly anyone talks about in this context.  If nothing else, I hope this post gets more people thinking of it in that way.

Every year, about 35,000 Americans are killed by guns.  My argument proceeds from the assumption that the “best” way to reduce gun violence is whichever way most reduces how many of those people are killed by any means (the last three words are important, because morally speaking, it does us no good to reduce gun deaths if those previously shot dead are instead merely stabbed or beaten to death, etc.) 

I’ve chosen this measure for its simplicity and universality: people of all political persuasions should be able to agree that saving lives is morally important.  More subjective moral considerations – such as constitutionality, the impact on recreational shooting, the impact on one’s capacity for self-defense, the importance of self-defense from nonfatal threats, or the importance of reducing firearm injuries as well as deaths – are deliberately omitted from this measure, to prevent the aforementioned problem of “talking past one another.”  Were they included, however, it’s worth noting that my case becomes even stronger.

Simply framed, gun deaths occur when someone motivated to kill chooses a gun as their killing tool.  As such, there are three primary strategies for reducing gun deaths, under which most policy proposals can be categorized:

1.     Reduce the motivation to kill in the first place.

2.     Restrict the sorts of people who have access to guns.

3.     Restrict the sorts of guns people have access to.

The first strategy is rarely easy, and not always possible – but when it is possible, it is objectively best.  This is because it’s the only strategy without risk of a substitution effect. Removing certain types of guns from the hands of certain types of people leaves those people free to enact violence with any other weapon they can acquire, whereas eliminating the motive to commit violence in the first place solves the problem at its root.  Strategies two and three may still be worth pursuing until such time as strategy one proves effective, but strategy one is the only permanent fix.

If strategy one is not effective, strategy two is the next best thing.  A very large percentage of American gun violence is committed by a very small percentage of Americans.  If it’s possible to identify who those people are likely to be in advance, restricting their access to any guns at all would save more lives than merely restricting the types of guns those people have access to (if you doubt this, be patient, the data I present later on will prove it). So the strategies are listed in rough order of intuitive preference.

However, each strategy will be more or less effective depending on the type of shooting it’s intended to reduce.  When we break down that 35,000 figure according to the shooter’s motive and intended target, we see there are four primary types of gun violence:

1.     Suicide.  Of the 35,000 annual gun deaths, about 21,600 are suicides; 62% of the time, the shooter’s intended target is oneself.  The motivations for self-harm are complex, but they’re easy enough to distinguish from what motivates violence against others.

2.     “Discriminate homicide,” which is homicide targeting specific individuals other than oneself.  This kills at least 12,500 Americans a year, for 36% of gun deaths.  The particular motivations in this category vary (hatred, rivalry, jealousy, money, etc.)  and as such, you could break this down further into similarly-motivated sub-categories.  Gang violence, for instance, kills roughly 2,000 a year, almost entirely with guns*;  domestic violence kills roughly 1,000-1,200 a year with guns**; and the Washington Post counts about 1,000 police shootings a year.  Also included are shootings in the course of robbery or other crimes, as well as second-degree shootings, often after fights at bars or nightclubs. But what ties them all together under my banner of “discriminate homicide” is that the killer discriminates: he attempts to kill a chosen one or few, but not others.

3.     Unintentional shootings.  About 500 Americans are killed each year by guns that were fired accidentally.  These have no motive nor intended target at all.  They account for 1.4% of gun deaths.

4.     “Indiscriminate homicide,” in which the intended target is everyone (or everyone of a targeted demographic) that happens to be at a chosen place.  These are the killings that make the national news, and fill my Facebook News Feed with angry people talking past one another.  They are also the only sort of homicide likely to be enacted with so-called “assault weapons.”  They are essentially what the average person thinks of when they hear the term “mass shooting”: a Columbine-style incident where a deranged gunman goes on a rampage in a crowded public place with the intent to kill as many people as possible.***

The Washington Post has
meticulously catalogued these narrowly defined “mass shootings” all the way back to 1966, when it argues the first such shooting took place at the University of Texas. Over the 51 years which have followed, it counts 150 mass shootings total (about 3 per year) having killed a total of 1,077 people (about 21 per year).  In fairness, these shootings have become slightly more common in recent years, as might be expected with the increase in population.  Over the eight years from 2010 to 2017, the Post counts 42 such incidents (5 per year), killing a total of 424 people (53 per year).  The deadliest single year for mass shootings was last year (2017) with 117 dead, thanks mostly to the 59 killed in Las Vegas.  Even taking this record-high as the new normal, mass shootings account for just 0.3% of all gun deaths in our country.  That they so dominate the media coverage of America’s “gun violence epidemic” strikes me as part of why Americans are talking past one another.

By combining the four types of gun violence (in order of prevalence) with the three primary strategies for reducing gun violence (in order of preference), we can create a nifty little strategy chart, wherein the upper-left-hand corner has the maximum potential for violence reduction, and the bottom-right-hand corner has the minimum potential for violence reduction.

Reduce motivations to kill
Restrict who can access guns
Restrict the sorts of guns available
Suicide – 21,600/yr
Worthwhile due to the sheer volume of suicides, but very difficult.  Depression has no easy legislative fix.
How to know who is suicidal? We don’t want to discourage depressed people from coming forward; restricting their legal rights contributes to mental health stigma. Besides, there’s likely a massive substitution effect.
Useless; any gun can be used for suicide, and even a complete ban would merely would spur a massive substitution effect with other means of killing oneself.
Discriminate Homicide – 12,500/yr
Bingo. Ending the War on Drugs is an easy policy change extremely likely to reduce several varieties of discriminate homicide (including gang violence, armed robberies, and police shootings) by considerable margins.
Mostly already done (Lautenberg Amendment, background checks, etc.). Closing loopholes is worthwhile, but the additional impact is likely marginal.
Most firearm murderers use handguns.  Gang violence is more likely to have unregistered/black-market guns anyway – criminals don’t turn their guns in.  Domestic violence can use any sort of firearm just as easily.
Accidents – 500/yr
No motive to reduce.
Mandatory training or storage laws might help a little, but it would restrict the rights of many to save a very small number (often from themselves).
Useless; all firearms equally likely to discharge accidentally.
Indiscriminate “Mass shootings” -    < 120/yr
Like depression, the mental health issues which cause deranged men to go on killing sprees have no easy legislative fix. Rarity makes impact tiny.
Mostly already done (Lautenberg Amendment, background checks, etc.). Closing loopholes is worthwhile, but the additional impact is likely marginal.
(The color of this block is what most Facebook gun control arguments revolve around. No matter who is right, indiscriminate mass shootings are such a tiny sliver of the overall problem, and “assault weapons” are so rarely used in crime, that even confiscating all of them with zero substitution effect would have minimal impact on overall gun death figures.)

As you can see, I’ve taken the liberty of filling in this chart, with my impression of each strategy’s effectiveness towards reducing that variety of gun violence.  Blocks colored red strike me as unlikely to work.  Blocks colored purple could plausibly work to some extent.  And the block colored green is extremely likely to work to a large extent. 

To expand on this, let’s look at each type of gun violence individually, like I said in the beginning:  one at a time, and in order of urgency.

1. The most urgent source of gun deaths is suicide.  The best way to reduce suicide is to combat the stigma of depression and encourage suffering people to seek mental help, but this is difficult to achieve through legislation. 

Suicide is tragic, but it is equally tragic no matter how it is committed, which means the relevant question is not “how do we reduce gun suicide?” but “how do we reduce suicide in general?”  Unfortunately, there is no easy answer, and the most compelling answers involve deeper cultural changes than government policy can produce.

Strategy #2 (restricting depressed people from owning guns) is problematic for several reasons.  First, equality under the law means we cannot take away people’s constitutional rights unless it’s as punishment for a crime.  It’s plainly discriminatory to withhold legal rights from an entire class of people just because some tiny minority of them are stereotyped as violent and crazy.  That violates the 5th and 14th amendments as well as the 2nd (and although I said I’d omit constitutional considerations, this makes it practically difficult to enact such legislation even if you don’t care about the ethics of constitutional questions).

Second, a law which deprived gun ownership from anyone with a history of mental illness would exacerbate the problem of mentally ill people declining to seek help – especially in the South, and especially among veterans.  There are enormous swaths of this country in which gun ownership is seen as an indication of manhood – where owning a gun is right up there with driving a pickup truck, drinking beer or watching football as a culturally important social outlet for men to talk about.  Not coincidentally, it is often these same social circles of conservative southern men who most struggle with a) PTSD from combat experience, and b) stigma about appearing weak by expressing their emotions, making them both the MOST in need of mental health treatment and the LEAST likely to seek it out.  That is a toxic combination.  A world in which seeking help means forfeiting their guns and appearing even more feminine in their social circles would make it more toxic.  To the extent that suicide is a problem caused by both the availability of guns and the mental health crisis in this country, we need to ensure that the solutions we pursue to one problem do not worsen the other.

Restricting the types of guns available is even less likely to help, because any gun can be used for suicide just as easily.  Also consider that Japan and Korea have almost no guns at all, but much higher rates of suicide than the United States.  Perhaps mandatory waiting periods before the purchase of new guns might help reduce the lethality of impulsive suicide attempts, and I’m open to that idea; but, the impact would likely be marginal with such a steep substitution rate, making the incidental reduction in “gun violence” rather hollow.  The bottom line is that a country’s suicide rate is more closely linked to underlying cultural factors than it is to the tools available to those considering it.  Therefore, the most sensible approach to reducing gun violence through legislation is to set aside suicide as a distinct social phenomenon unrelated to guns, and focus instead on reducing the remaining 13,000 annual gun deaths.

2. This is where my four pages of prelude mercifully end and I finally dive into the heart of my thesis: the best way to reduce discriminate homicide is to end the war on drugs. We have excellent intuitive and empirical reason to believe that doing so would substantially reduce the number of homicides in our country.  Estimates as to the number of homicides which are drug-related range from 5-50% (with the best studies splitting the difference).  But ultimately, ending the drug war could reduce even those types of discriminate homicide not directly related to gang or drug violence, like robberies or police shootings, for at least three reasons.

First, legalizing drugs would defund organized crime.  Prohibition gives a monopoly to those willing to break the law by shielding them from competition and taxation. This inflates the price of drugs and sends lucrative profits to gangs and cartels – including the same Mexican drug cartels that have killed an estimated 166,000 people in drug related violence since 2006.  The Federal Office of National Drug Control Policy states that marijuana alone “now earns cartels about $8.5 billion, or about 61 percent of their annual estimated income of $13.8 billion.”  The New York Times reports that while “no one knows exactly how much money Mexican traffickers make…reasonable estimates find they pocket $30 billion every year selling cocaine, marijuana, heroin and crystal meth to American users.”  These profits are used to fund activities far more sinister than drug use; the cartels are known to dabble in kidnapping, extortion, weapons smuggling, human trafficking and child sex slavery, and hired assassination. Legalizing drugs would divert money away from these thugs by eliminating the underground demand for their most popular product, which the same New York Times Op-Ed claims would inflict more financial damage than soldiers or drug agents have managed in years and substantially weaken cartels.”  Reductions in gun violence would very likely correspond, in both Mexico and the United States.

Second, legalizing drugs takes them off the black market, which opens up peaceful avenues for conflict resolution.  As mentioned above, at least 2,000 people a year are killed in American gang violence.  A substantial portion of these deaths result from bloody turf wars between rival drug distributors.  These killings are characteristic of black markets, because participants in such markets lack access to the court system as a means of resolving disputes.  If drugs were legalized, consumers would no longer need to buy their weed from professional criminals, and the black market would turn into a white market with access to judicial recourse.  The business of neighborhood drug dealers would dry up, and so too would the disputes those dealers previously resolved through violence.

Thirdly, legalization would help rebuild America’s poorest families and most desperate communities. Imprisoning peaceful people for victimless crimes destroys families and inhibits economic advancement, which in turn actually increases crime.  When poor fathers are thrown in jail or killed in an unnecessarily dangerous drug world, their families become even more desperate and dysfunctional.  Studies show that children growing up in these broken households are more likely to demonstrate aggressive behavior, to be delinquent, suspended or expelled from school, and to turn to crime themselves.  An infuriating 46 percent of our federal prison populations consists of non-violent drug offenders, 54 percent of which are parents with minor children, while an astounding 70 percent of gang members grew up in single-mother homes.  You do the math.

Additionally, having a criminal record decreases one’s employment opportunities and lowers one’s earnings potential going forward. This ensures that people convicted of drug crimes have fewer places to turn besides crime upon their release. And by making the illegal drug trade so lucrative, prohibition has only increased the temptation to engage in illicit activities.  This is part of why four of ten released prisoners wind up back in jail within three years of their release. Legalization would reverse both of these incentives. First, it would reduce the appeal of crime by removing the underground marijuana trade as a profitable option. And second, it would reduce the necessity of crime by decreasing incarceration, and thereby increasing the legal employment alternatives of would-be convicts.

In summary, legalizing drugs would defund organized crime, eliminate dangerous black markets, prevent hundreds of thousands of arrests per year (which in turn reduces recidivism due to having a criminal record, reduces how many children grow up in broken households) and generally help America's poorest and most desperate communities become much less violent places. The overall reduction in gun violence would be tremendous.

Restricting who has access to firearms cannot hope to achieve the same degree of homicide reduction, in part because it’s already been tried.  The Lautenberg Amendment makes it illegal for those convicted of domestic violence charges to possess a gun.  Criminal background checks are already required for licensed firearm vendors in all 50 states, and even from private vendors in 19 states. Closing the so-called “gun-show loophole” in the 31 states where it exists is a reasonable proposal, as is adding temporary restrictions on gun purchases for those with restraining orders.  But in a nation with 300 million guns in the country already, preventing criminals from getting their hands on one is easier said than done.  Besides, this strategy overlaps with ending the war on drugs anyway, since the black market criminal underworld in which drugs are peddled is also the largest source for buying illegal and unregistered guns.  Shrinking that market would make it tougher to circumvent the existing background check process.

Likewise, strategy #3 does not make sense for discriminate homicide, because when discriminate homicide is carried out with a gun, it is usually a handgun.  Handguns are used in nine times as many murders as all other sorts of firearms combined.  However, they also make the lease sense to prohibit, because a) they are the least powerful sort of firearm, b) they are the most practical for legitimate defensive use, and c) they are the most commonly owned sort of firearm, as well as the easiest to conceal or hide, which makes mass confiscation essentially impossible.  Consider that Brazil has a homicide rate four times greater than ours, with less than 10% of our gun ownership rate, and you realize that the degree of confiscation necessary for this to be effective is extraordinarily difficult to achieve.

3. Compared to the likeliest impact of legalizing drugs, the best ways to reduce accidental or indiscriminate shootings barely even matter.  Set aside for the moment how indiscriminate and accidental shootings are among the most difficult to prevent, and simply recall that all of these shootings combined account for less than 2% of American gun deaths, whereas discriminate homicide (committed overwhelmingly on black men, with handguns) accounts for 36%.  If your proposals for reducing gun violence are primarily geared towards reducing the 0.3% covered by the media, ask yourself why that is.  Are you really convinced those proposals would make a dent in the broader problems afflicting our country?  Or are you merely reacting to whatever frightening anecdotes our sensationalist media throws in front of your face?  Are you treating all lives with equal moral weight?  Or do you mostly care about keeping the issue out-of-sight, out-of-mind?

And more importantly, if you advocate gun control, but are NOT yet ready to join the rising majority of Americans who favor the legalization of marijuana (at least), ask yourself how much of your gun-control rhetoric ought to be thrown right back in your own face.  You blame the NRA for “clinging” to guns at the expense of human life; but when will YOU, clinging to prohibition for God knows what reason, let go of your own sacred cows?  How many innocent lives will it take for YOU to have a serious conversation about America’s drug war problem?  When will YOU say “enough is enough?”

TL;DR: American gun violence can be broken down into four broad categories: suicide, discriminate homicide, accidental shootings and indiscriminate shootings.  Suicide is a complex social phenomenon which cannot be easily reduced through legislation.  Accidental and indiscriminate shootings are an isolated phenomenon, which amount to a drop in the bucket of overall gun violence.  Therefore, efforts to reduce gun violence will be most effective if they focus on discriminate gun homicide.

The largest cause of discriminate gun homicide is gang violence, and the largest cause of gang violence is the black market for illicit substances created by the war on drugs.  Ending the war on drugs by legalizing these substances would cause that market to vanish, and the systemic violence associated with it to plummet.  Consequently, ending the war on drugs would reduce gun violence in our country to a greater extent than any other feasible proposal (and certainly to a greater extent than all proposals aimed at reducing the death toll from indiscriminate mass shootings combined).


*According to the National Gang Center, gang violence killed roughly 2,000 a year from 2007-2012, which was 13-15% of the annual average murder rate over that time.  This is likely an understatement, since not all precincts track the total claimed by gang violence; over half of these deaths came from Chicago and Los Angeles alone, for example.

No breakdown was provided as to what portion of these gang-related homicides were committed with a gun; however, intuition suggests this portion would be considerably higher than the portion of domestic violence homicides committed by gun (which is 50-60%) since a) domestic violence victims are much likelier to be women than gang-violence victims, and thus more easily overpowered without firearms by male perpetrators, and b) by virtue of cohabitation, intimate partners are more vulnerable to short-range weapons than rival gang members.  An 80%-with-guns estimate makes 1,600 gun deaths a year from gang violence our low-ball estimate, which is 13 times more than the deadliest year ever for indiscriminate “mass shootings.”

**Everytown USA says more than 600 women per year are killed by an intimate partner with a gun.  This Associated Press study says “nearly 75% of the victims in domestic violence shootings are the current wives or girlfriends of the men who killed them.”  If both are correct, it would put the floor number of domestic violence shooting victims around 800.
However, this source puts the number slightly higher, saying that 2,000 are killed by domestic violence overall per year, of which “more than half” are killed with a gun.  If it were much more than half, they’d likely have said so (“more than 60%,” etc) because the source is arguing for a strong link between guns and domestic violence.  This, combined with the differing data above, leads me to suspect it’s not much more than half, so I’m estimating 1000-1200 a year.  If you have better data, please send it my way in the comments.

***Some media outlets and advocacy groups employ much broader definitions of the term “mass shooting, like “any shooting leaving four or more dead, including the shooter” or “any shooting with four or more shot, not including the shooter.”  I’m cynical of these broader definitions because they seemingly “conflate to inflate;” that is, they clump together a wide range of categorically different sorts of crimes under the same label, so as to create the impression that the indiscriminate, Columbine-style incidents so ingrained in national memory are much more common than they really are.  For example, according to the Huffington Post’s definition, 57% of “mass shootings” are domestic violence related, which runs contrary to the widespread perception of mass shootings as highly public incidents, and therefore contributes to the problem of “talking past one another” that I find so lamentable.

I opted for the term “indiscriminate homicide” to remove this ambiguity.  Cases where the shooter selects his targets at random in public places plainly constitute a distinct phenomenon from the sort of targeted homicide that happens every day. They warrant their own category.

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