Being a drug law reformer, the most maddening retort I get from the gun fetishists whenever there’s another mass shooting (with enough of a body count to break through on the national news) is that “You know that prohibition never works on drugs; why do you think it would work on guns?”
There’s so much wrong with that statement that you have to peel it back in layers like an onion.
First off, who says prohibition doesn’t work on drugs?
According to the United Nations Office on Drugs & Crime, the prevalence of cannabis use by people aged 15-64 in Indonesia is 0.18 percent, compared to the the 16.5 percent rate in the United States.
Why does Indonesia have 1/92nd the rate of cannabis use as we do? It’s not because you can’t grow cannabis there or that Indonesians don’t like getting high. It’s because the prohibition penalties are remarkably stiff:
- Possession is punishable by 4 to 12 years’ imprisonment, and fines of IDR 800 million to 8 billion (US$89,600 to US$896,000). If the drugs exceed 1 kilogram (for raw drugs like marijuana) or 5 grams (for processed drugs like heroin and cocaine), a maximum punishment of life imprisonment may be imposed.
- Trafficking is punishable by 5 to 15 years’ imprisonment and fines of IDR one billion to ten billion (US$112,000 to US$1.2 million). If the volume of drugs exceeds 1 kilogram (for raw drugs) or 5 grams (for processed drugs), the death penalty may be imposed.
You’ll find similarly low rates of cannabis use in Saudi Arabia (0.3 percent)…
The sale of drugs in Saudi Arabia almost always results in the death penalty. Saudi Arabia and judicial authorities are not inclined to make exceptions. Alcohol use is illegal in Saudi Arabia, and possession or use of alcohol or drugs can be punished by public flogging, fines, lengthy imprisonment, or death.
…and Japan (0.3 percent) as well:
Growing, importing or exporting marijuana in Japan can be punished with up to 7 years in prison. However, engaging in any of those acts with the intent to profit carries a heavier punishment of imprisonment for up to 10 years. Similarly, simple possession of marijuana carries a sentence of up to 5 years of prison, while possession with the intent to profit is punishable by up to 7 years imprisonment and/or up to a 2,000,000 fine.
So, yes, if you make the penalties strong enough and certain enough, you can damn near eliminate marijuana usage or any other drug usage. Never completely, though, and I’ll concede no gun control law is ever going to completely eliminate the threat of maniacs shooting innocent people in public.
But shouldn’t the goal be to reduce that possibility, not to enable it?
Second, and this ought to be obvious, guns aren’t drugs.
When I take drugs, I affect me. When I shoot guns, I affect you.
Drugs are molecules mostly derived from plants. Guns are machines mostly manufactured in factories.
Drugs, when used properly, aren’t meant to kill people. Guns, when used properly, are meant to kill people.
Drugs can only kill the people who have chosen to take them. Until some maniac simultaneously doses every kid’s school lunch with fatal amounts of fentanyl, there is no drug death equivalent to seventeen people being randomly murdered with a semi-automatic rifle with a large capacity magazine.
Third, the example of drugs actually underscores my point.
The Controlled Substances Act defines dangerous drugs in five categories, from absolutely prohibited (Schedule I), through dangerous-but-useful drugs that are strictly controlled (Schedule II & III), and on to less-dangerous-and-useful drugs (Schedule IV & V) with lesser controls. Then we also have over-the-counter drugs that have to pass FDA muster, followed by alcohol and tobacco, which get a pass.
Now, the scheduling itself is insane. Cannabis and mushrooms are in Schedule I, where alcohol and tobacco ought to be. Synthetic cannabinoids are in Schedules II and III, because somehow cannabis is medically useful once a laboratory gets ahold of it. Some of the over-the-counter drugs like NyQuil can get you higher than some of the drugs on the schedule.
But the idea of the scheduling makes a lot of sense. It bans drugs that are dangerous with no medical value, it severely restricts the drugs that are dangerous but have some medical value, and it relaxes restrictions accordingly as drugs get less dangerous to self and society.
Today we have something of a gun scheduling system. Automatic weapons are the Schedule I guns – extremely dangerous with no civilian value/use. Handguns are the Schedule II guns – dangerous (concealable), but with some legit civilian use (protection). Semi-automatics are the Schedule III guns, long rifles and shotguns would be Schedules IV and V, and BB guns and air rifles are over-the-counter. I suppose in this analogy that flamethrowers – perfectly legal to own – are the alcohol and tobacco.
And like the drug scheduling system, there are glaring issues with how some have been scheduled. How is it, many are asking in Florida, that a 19-year-old with mental health issues and numerous police visits can legally purchase an AR-15, but not legally purchase a handgun until he’s 21?
Fourth, we need not ban anything if we regulate strictly.
Let’s get realistic about the public health dangers of guns and set our regulations for them accordingly.
One guy tried to shoe-bomb a plane fifteen years ago and we’re all still taking off our shoes at the airport, because the inconvenience of millions of people taking off their shoes is a small price to pay to make it harder for a maniac to blow up a plane full of people.
Meth cooks made use of easy access to the precursor chemical pseudoephedrine, so we made access to Sudafed a real pain in the ass in many states, requiring either a prescription or limited purchases with tracked identification, because going through that hassle is worth eliminating most of the occasionally-exploding meth labs.
So why not put some “well-regulated” back into our gun laws? Universal background checks, mandatory waiting periods, annual licensure with demonstrated proficiency and safety training, locked storage requirements, firearms insurance, ammunition purchase limits and tracking, and so forth, in escalating restriction based on potential danger?
The only reason we say drug prohibition doesn’t work is because we aren’t willing to make the trade-off in liberty necessary for the increase in security. A few thousand illegal overdose deaths don’t justify the incredible injustice of a death penalty for trafficking drugs.
So the real question is whether the inconveniences we’d suffer from an increase in gun prohibition would be worth the trade-off in increased safety. Would your ability to defend yourself, family, and home, to be able to enjoy the sports of hunting and target shooting, be unacceptably diminished by requiring more of citizens to keep and bear arms than just a pulse, a clean record, and adulthood?