Universal gun confiscation is impossible, and even aggressive gun control might not dramatically reduce gun-related deaths. But ending our ridiculous and expensive war on drugs could.
This is not a column against gun control. Gun control is a good idea. The assault-weapons ban is a good idea. So are background checks, stricter licensing agreements, and greater efforts to keep guns out of the hands of minors. A prohibitive tax on ammunition? There's another good idea finally getting attention it deserves, after being suggested by comedian Chris Rock a decade ago.
But much of the gun-policy commentary that has come in the wake of the tragic Newtown massacre is misdirected. Stringent gun-control measures are unlikely to turn the United States into a peaceful gun-free society like Japan. In addition, much of the hysteria over "rising gun deaths" is badly misplaced, since the violent-crime rate and the murder rate have both been declining since the early 1990s. If we really, truly want to reduce gun deaths, there is a much better way to do it than the gun-control measures.
THE IMPOSSIBLE DREAM: ZERO-GUN AMERICA
Having lived in Japan, I've known for many years how peaceful it is. Women can (and often do) walk down the street at night alone in a big city without fear of attack. Fights are rare, and murders rarer. And much, though not all, of this is due to the fact that Japan doesn't allow people to own guns. If you think Japan is a special case, check out Germany, France, and other gun-free countries.
But to become like Japan, banning gun sales wouldn't be enough. We'd have to actually confiscate all the guns that Americans now have. This is because guns are very durable; they last many, many years. The United States has far more guns per 100 people than any other country (88.8 in 2007, compared to 58.2 for second-place Serbia). It would take many decades for a gun sale ban to reduce that number to rich-country averages.
Nor is there any certainty that marginal reductions in gun ownership would bring matching reductions in the murder rate. Brazil, for example, has a murder rate more than four times as high as the U.S., with less than 10% of the gun ownership that we have. In other words, it's possible that appreciably reducing gun murders might require a truly huge (and unrealistic) reduction in gun ownership.
Now, if the U.S. banned gun ownership, and confiscated all the guns that people currently own, it would probably be very effective. But this is almost certainly politically infeasible, and if somehow the 14th Amendment were repealed and this law were passed, it would cause violent civil unrest. Additionally, lots of people could hide their guns. The effort required to confiscate them would be likely to turn our country into a police state.
So universal gun confiscation is out.
THE GUN NUMBERS TO FOCUS ON
Any gun control we enact will have a limited effect. But this should not be cause for despair. Much of the recent hysteria over gun deaths is misplaced.
A lot of people have been citing a recent report, "American Gun Deaths to Exceed Traffic Fatalities by 2015." The article shows that gun deaths in America are slowly rising, and now stand at 32,000 per year -- a staggering toll. Now, 32,000 deaths per year is a lot of death, and I'd never minimize that. But what the article's authors fail to mention is that gun murders comprise less than a third of that total -- about 9,000 per year in recent years. With accidental gun deaths steady at around 500-600 per year, the bulk of those 32,000 "gun deaths" are suicides.
In fact, murder by gun has been falling steadily since the early 1990s. Some of that is due to improvements in emergency medicine, but most is a result of the overall decline in violent crime that America has enjoyed over the last two decades. The fact that overall gun deaths has risen since 2000, despite the fall in murders, suggests that increased gun suicide has accounted for more than 100% of the increase in gun deaths. Obviously, suicide is a tragedy, and I don't want to minimize it. But people aren't panicking over suicide, they're panicking over murder, and gun-related murder is on the way down.
Of course, 9,000 gun deaths a year is still a lot. Still more than other rich countries, still a disgrace, still far too many! But people who have been watching the round-the-clock coverage of the Newtown massacre need to understand that "mass killings" of the Newtown type account for a very small percent of that 9,000. Most of those 9,000 gun murders are of the more mundane, but no less deadly variety -- drive-by shootings, gang wars, personal quarrels, and other easily comprehensible crimes.
And if we really care about those 9,000 souls who are shot to death each year, there is an extremely effective policy that we could enact right now that would probably save many of them.
I'm talking about ending the drug war.
A DRUG-WAR POLICY, NOT A GUN POLICY
Reliable statistics on the number of drug-related murders in the United States are hard to come by. A 1994 Department of Justice report suggested that between a third and a half of U.S. homicides were drug-related, while a recent Center for Disease Control study found that the rate varied between 5% and 25% (a 2002 Bureau of Justice report splits the difference). Part of this variance is that "drug-related" murders are hard to define. There are murders committed by people on drugs, murders committed by addicts to get money for drugs, turf-war murders by drug suppliers, and murders committed by gangs whose principal source of income is drug sales.
But very few would argue that the illegal drug trade is a significant cause of murders. This is a straightforward result of America's three-decade-long "drug war." Legal bans on drug sales lead to a vacuum in legal regulation; instead of going to court, drug suppliers settle their disputes by shooting each other. Meanwhile, interdiction efforts raise the price of drugs by curbing supply, making local drug supply monopolies (i.e., gang turf) a rich prize to be fought over. And stuffing our overcrowded prisons full of harmless, hapless drug addicts forces us to give accelerated parole to hardened killers.
Ending the drug war would involve reducing all of these incentives to murder. Treating addicts in hospitals and rehab centers, instead of sticking them in prisons, would reduce demand for drugs, lowering the price and starving gangs of income while reducing their incentive to wage turf wars. Decriminalization would relieve pressure on our prison system, allowing us to focus on keeping violent people off the streets instead of pointlessly punishing drug users for destroying their own health. And full legalization of recreational marijuana -- which is already proceeding quickly among the states, but is still foolishly opposed by the Obama administration -- is an obvious first step.
In other words, yes, gun control is good. BUT don't expect it to be a panacea for America's gun violence problem. If we really want to save some of those 9,000 people, we need to end the self-destructive, failed drug policies that have turned us into a prison state and turned many of our cities into war zones.