The Single Best Anti-Gun-Death Policy? Ending the Drug War

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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.

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Reuters

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.

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Noah Smith is an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University. He writes regularly at Noahpinion.

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