Gun Restrictions: Lessons from Efforts to Curb Smoking, Drinking, Drugs, and Sex
With the Newtown tragedy fresh on our minds, there is renewed interest in restricting guns. Such interest usually lasts a few days after each rampage, but maybe it will be different this time. And if it is, we need to determine the best way to restrict guns. You might think this a simple matter: just pass a law banning assault weapons. It is not that simple.
Over the last four years, I have written on efforts to ban/restrict drinking, prostitution, and drugs (the three leading entertainment activities globally). I have also looked at what has been done to curb dangerous addictions (drinking, smoking, drugs and overeating). As we consider possible bans/restrictions on guns, there are important lessons to be learned from these restriction efforts.
The US engaged in a very interesting experiment between 1920 and 1933: it banned the manufacture, transportation and sale of alcohol. What was learned?
- Alcohol consumption did not end, despite significant efforts by Federal, state and local governments;
- Making the production and sale of alcohol illegal simply meant the market was served by criminals;
- Violence increased as different gangs fought over market control;
- Alcohol prices increased significantly;
- The quality of the alcohol products varied, creating greater health risks.
I just completed an article on US drug policies. The US bans the possession, production and sale of many drugs. Have the bans worked? No. Recognizing that no country has come even close to doing as much as the US has to reduce illicit drug use, the US rankings on prevalence of use (among countries with populations of 1 million and up) are Cannabis – 4th, opium – 1st, Amphetamines – 5th, Cocaine – 5th, and Ecstasy – 11th.
I concluded the US “drug war” is worse than Prohibition because it has created a criminal element resulting in nearly 100,000 homicides per year. The US has by far the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world (730 prisoners per 100,000 citizens). And 25% of the prisoners are non-violent drug offenders.
Since 1996, the US government has spent more than $150 billion to cut off illicit drug supplies. Last year, the government spent more than $15 billion to reduce supplies, with 36% of that going to “domestic law enforcement” and 16% to “domestic interdiction”. More than $2 billion was spent internationally.
Despite these efforts, I estimate US illegal drug sales at $400 billion annually.
In short, the drug bans are not working.
What has been done in the US with cigarettes is interesting. Smoking is a well-documented real killer – more than 400,000 die annually in the US from smoking. Nevertheless, smoking is legal. But what has been done to curb smoking is working: the adult smoking rate has fallen from over 40% in 1965 to under 20% today.
So what is being done to curb smoking? While cigarettes can by bought, their sale to minors is restricted. They are taxed heavily (taxes levied per pack are the equivalent to a 71% rate, and campaigns about their dangers are continually run.
Nevada is the only state where prostitution is legal Does that mean the bans in the other 49 states are working? No. The bans are not serious, just politically correct.
Overeating is a dangerous addiction. The only restriction I know of is Mayor Bloomberg’s limitation on the size of soft drinks in NYC.
What are the lessons from this review for new gun restrictions? In the US, if there is a market for a product, it will be served. Bans don’t work. Banning any type of gun will result in the market being served by criminals. Approximately 10 million guns are sold legally in the US every year – a big business.
But maybe the market for guns is different than the market for addictive products discussed above. I don’t know. When I hear people say they need their guns so they can take back the country from a bad government, I worry.
My recommendation: don’t ban any guns (assault weapons, whatever). Instead, levy a Federal 100% sales tax on “bad guns”, and use the proceeds to do a better job on background checks. Will this remedy the problem? No. But it is a reasonable place to start. Bans are expensive and most are unenforceable.