The Best Way to End Gun Violence? End the War On Drugs


In the wake of the Newtown tragedy, many are calling for stricter gun control measures to reduce violence. However, instead of rushing to limit freedom in an effort to increase security, perhaps we could try a different approach. What if expanding freedom could reduce gun violence more than any gun control measure could ever hope to accomplish? 

In 1920, the Eighteenth Amendment was passed, prohibiting the manufacturing and distribution of alcohol. The government devoted great resources to enforcing the prohibition. “The criminal justice system was swamped ... [p]risons were crowded and court dockets backlogged in trying to deal with the rapid expansion of crimes that had no readily identifiable victims. The vast scale of new criminal activity supported the expansion of organized crime, as well as widespread corruption among those charged with enforcing unpopular laws.” The murder rate rose rapidly after alcohol prohibition, with a corresponding decline after the Twenty-first Amendment was passed in 1933, repealing the Eighteenth Amendment. 

Drug prohibition has been no more effective. Since 1971, the “war on drugs” has cost more than $1 trillion. Yet the U.S. continues to lead the world in illicit drug use, and more than 500,000 people are behind bars for a drug law violation.

In addition to being costly and ineffective, the war on drugs has also increased violence. According to the FBI, there were roughly 400 to 600 drug-related murders annually between 2007 and 2011. (Drug-related homicides are those murders that occurred specifically during a narcotics felony, such as drug trafficking or manufacturing.) This figure does not include a murder that occurs during a robbery to obtain money to buy drugs, nor does it include gang violence. Gang violence alone accounts for 600-800 murders annually, a significant portion of which is attributable to the drug trade. In Oklahoma City and Newark, New Jersey, 20-25% of all gang homicides were connected to drugs. Innocent bystanders are often caught in the cross fire.

In Chicago, 506 people were murdered in 2012, despite strict gun control laws. A little more than a week into the new year and another 12 have been slain. Chicago police Superintendent, Gary McCarthy, attributes most of the violent crime to drugs, guns and gang wars. In June of 2012, a pregnant 17-year-oldwas killed by a stray bullet while sitting in her living room, and 7-year-old Heaven Sutton was shot and killed after having her hair styled in preparation for a trip to Disney World.

Why does prohibition increase violence?

Yale Law professor Dan Kahan explains, “Illegal markets breed competition-driven violence among suppliers by offering the prospect of monopoly profits and by denying them lawful means for enforcing commercial obligations.”  

Economist Jeffrey Miron notes that the “marginal cost of violent acts is likely to be smaller in a prohibited market than in a free market, because evading apprehension for one set of illegal activities — drug dealing — is complimentary with evading apprehension for another set- initiating violence.” Moreover, as drug related violence makes headlines, “law abiding citizens buy guns in self-defense, and these weapons are discharged accidentally or used in domestic and other non-drug related disputes. The increased demand for guns, for both legal and illegal purposes, means that guns are widely available generally, for use in a broad range of violent activities.”

Decriminalizing drugs would have benefits beyond reducing violence, as explained by Milton Friedman.

Politicians don't often look to solve a problem by expanding liberty. Perhaps that's why we have so many problems. Ending the fruitless war on drugs would be a step in the right direction.