In the wake of the tragic attack in Orlando, anyone on social media will see statistics about how much worse gun violence is in the USA than in other places in the world. By one measure, the US has almost 6x more deaths from gun violence as our northern neighbor, Canada and many other developed countries. So how can we solve this problem?
Many advocate for tougher restrictions on the purchase of guns. Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that these policies will have a large impact on gun violence in the US. The US has a world-leading 112.6 guns per 100 people. That puts us about 4x higher than the next closest developed countries, Sweden, Norway, France and Canada, which are hovering at just above 31 firearms per 100 people. Even if we were to ban the sale of all guns altogether in the USA, it’d still take us decades to get down to 31 firearms per 100 people. But a firearms sale ban isn’t even on the table, let alone a government seizure of weapons from those who already have them. What’s on the table right now are a ban on assault weapons, universal background checks and waiting periods for gun purchases.
Statistics show that 86% of gun-related crimes involve handguns. An assault weapons ban or a waiting period would do little to prevent 86% of gun-related crime, and it’s quite possible that the person who would be prevented from buying a gun with a background check could easily find another legal or illegal way to buy a handgun. Yet even if these measures were put in place, it’s important to remember that an attack that’s very similar to the one in Orlando was carried out in Paris, France earlier this year. France has much more restrictive gun laws than the US, including many of the reforms that the US proposes in the wake of mass shootings. The attackers in Paris just illegally obtained weapons.
Looking at the numbers, we can see that the gun control measures on the table now would shave off 2% of gun violence here or another 4% there if they are to be effective at all. It’s worth noting that the US did have an assault weapons ban in place from 1994 to 2004. A University of Pennsylvania study found that the ban had a statistically negligible effect on gun violence. The things that we’re talking about doing today likely won’t prevent the next mass shooting and they won’t put gun violence in the US in line with other developed countries, so let’s start looking at other solutions. Let’s try ending the war on drugs.
It’s hard to figure out exactly how much gun violence is attributable to the war on drugs. Between gang-related turf wars to police homicides that stem from the war on drugs, there are a number of ways that the war on drugs can cause gun violence. Baltimore’s police commissioner says that 80% of homicides he sees are due to drugs. Similar numbers come out of Chicago. Nationwide, these estimates are as high as 50%, and another large chunk of homicides have unreported causes, which very well may add to that 50% figure.
The sale of drugs is a prime cause for gun violence because the illegal nature of the drug trade excludes it from all of the rules society has come up with to prevent violence in other areas. At its core, the government is a complex system of dispute resolution. We have laws, processes and courts that determine what is to happen when disputes arise. We’ve subscribed to that system and made it illegal for anyone but the government to use violence to enforce justice. This gives us better outcomes on the whole.
Because the drug trade is illegal, it is outside of the purview of that system of justice. Without an overarching dispute resolution system, participants must enforce their own justice. Because morality is so arbitrary in this system, everyone must be equipped to defend themselves and administer their own justice. To wit, 88% of inner-city juvenile offenders self-reported carrying a firearm and the most reported reason for doing so was self-defense. Competition in the drug trade requires gun ownership, much like the wild west before it was settled. Taking the drug trade into the jurisdiction of the peaceful systems of dispute resolution that we use all the time will quickly decrease its violent nature.
In Denver, since the legalization of cannabis, homicides have decreased by 25%. One in four people who would have otherwise died as a result of gun violence is now alive. This amounts to 10 people in one year in Denver alone. The nearby Aurora shooting took the lives of 12 people and likely wouldn’t have been prevented by any of the gun control measures that are currently being debated. Simply legalizing cannabis in one city has almost done as much to reduce violent crime as erasing one incredibly tragic mass shooting. Imagine how powerful and widespread the effects of mass drug legalization would be in cities like Baltimore and Chicago which see several hundred homicides each year.
In the wake of a mass shooting like the one in Orlando, we often overlook the daily gun violence of our urban centers. Shootings like Orlando are sensationalized by the media because of their abruptness and the seeming innocence of the victims. Yet the victims of everyday urban drug violence are equally innocent. Nobody deserves to be murdered regardless of moral standing, what drugs they use, or involvement in the drug trade.
In fact, the focus on the victims of the types of shootings upon which we fixate reveals an unfortunate moral disparity in the gun control dialogue today. Why are the victims of urban drug violence undeserving of the spotlight? Because they’re largely poor and black? The dialogue around gun control right now simply underscores the problems created by the drug war’s racist origins. Focusing on shootings like the one in Orlando whose victims are the types of people that gun violence rarely touches minimizes the impact of gun violence on the lives of people for whom violent crime is a daily worry.
Gun violence is a large, uniquely American problem requiring a complex set of solutions. Let’s focus our energy on one very high impact solution with the potential to actually halve gun violence in the US. Rather than ban a specific type of weapon, require background checks or close the gun show loophole, let’s make some serious change. Let’s end the war on drugs.