Friday, December 21, 2012

New Atlantic column: Gun control is good, but ending the War on Drugs is even better

I have a new column up at the Atlantic, in which I try to give some perspective to the gun control debate that has exploded since the Newtown massacre. Some excerpts:

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... 
Stringent gun-control measures are unlikely to turn the United States into a peaceful gun-free society like Japan...[T]o become like Japan, banning gun sales wouldn't be enough...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... 
[I]f 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... 
[F]ew 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... 
[D]on't expect [gun control] to be a panacea...[W]e 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.
Read the whole thing here!


  1. Ending the war on drugs would cut down the number of criminals who kill each other and would probably cut down the number of people who die in the course of robberies. It would do nothing to cut down on the number of school and other mass shootings. One of those children at Newtown is worth at least ten drug dealers.

    1. One of those children at Newtown is worth at least ten drug dealers.

      What a horrible thing to say...

    2. What a horrible thing to say...


      I would trade ten dead drug dealers (perhaps more) for one dead innocent six year old. If we are going to engage in rational policy choices we should try to identify our elasticities so we know what our priorities are. I regret that you are offended.

    3. Oh, I'm not offended...

      How about 1-year-olds? Is it still one 1-year-old for 10 drug dealers?

      How about fetuses? How many 8-month-old fetuses for ten drug dealers?

      How about marijuana dealers vs. heroin dealers? What's your exchange rate there?

    4. Anonymous7:01 PM

      His ratio probably circles around 1 to 3/5ths. Of course that has to be accounted for inflation since the 18th century.

    5. As usual, Noah doesn't address the underlying point. Not to mention, he's the one drawing issue equivalence here.

      To even discuss these two issues in the same piece is reprehensible.

    6. His ratio probably circles around 1 to 3/5ths. Har. Har. I don't care if the drug dealers are black. My ratio of drug dealers to innocent children is ten or greater.

      Noah - Yes, I would trade ten drug dealers (or more) for one one year old. For present purposes I am not going down the rabbit hole of drawing distinctions between dealers in marijuana, crack, heroin, crystal meth etc. Nor am I going to be drawn into the swamp of fetal rights.

      RN - It is not reprehensible to discuss drugs and guns in the same post because a lot of gun deaths are drug related. Noah and I appear to agree that rational choices may require that we compare the effectiveness of different policy approaches. Noah and I just appear to have different utility functions when it comes to valuing the lives potentially saved. Noah appears to be taking a very Christian position. ;-)

  2. Anonymous4:44 PM

    You make a rational case for ending the drug war, and,in so doing, touch upon a number of the arguments that have been used by the NRA and similarly minded gun rights advocates:
    - the use of suicides to pad gun shot death stats in order to make the problem appear worse than it is
    - The overall decline in gun related murders
    - the statistical insignificance of accidental gunshot deaths
    - the ready examples of people in other parts of the world who are able to kill their fellow citizens just fine without guns

    I certainly congratulate you for being willing to consider these arguments - not at all typical for a contributor to a liberal publication.

    However, given all the great reasons you have given to be entirely skeptical of the effectiveness of gun control, why do you assert that it's a good idea? That is, the implication of your piece is that gun control measures that have any chance of actually being enacted would likely only have a marginal positive effect in reducing gun violence. Now 2nd Amendment Supporters, such as myself, tend to look at that reality, and take the next step: "And, such dubious measures may also infringe upon the constitutionally rights of U.S. citizens". Are you unable to make that step because you disagree, or because you fear that the rational arguments you have made here would prevent you from writing for this audience in the future if you didn't include boiler plate about the essential goodness of gun control?

    1. Oh, but gun control does work.

    2. Noah a rational piece, but surely with the growth of 3D printing the potential effectiveness of gun control is waning?

      The only piece of legislation I'd consider as semi-effective would be a bullet tax, but that would only incentivise the development of metal 3D printing to print bullets...

      Personally, I am virtually certain that various gun control measures mentioned above will be tried, because of the current mood, but I am not really certain they will be effective in keeping guns out of the hands of criminals in the same way that ending the war on drugs would.

    3. Noah a rational piece, but surely with the growth of 3D printing the potential effectiveness of gun control is waning?

      Control bullets rather than. Doubt 3d printing is going to be able to synthesize propellants anytime soon.

    4. The number unintentional of deaths in the US due to firearms in 2010 was 606. Even when compared to the total number of deaths due to firearms in 2010, 31,672, which is about 2% of all firearms deaths. One might want to consider this significant a significant number, the number of justifiable homicides by a private citizen with a firearm in 2010 was 236. A justifiable homicide is the killing of a felon during the commission of a felony. No, that is not a typo, there were 236 instances of justifiable homicide in the entire US in the year 2010. I suppose that by your logic self-defense is a insignificant use of firearms.
      The FBI has that in the table here:

      OTOH, the number of deaths due to firearm suicides was 19,392. Other countries that have more put more restrictions on gun ownership, like Australia, have seen a statistically significant increase in the rate of decline for firearm suicides. Also, even more interestingly when compared to other methods, there appears to be no substitution effects. Which is to say that firearms were not replaced with other non-firearm weapons like knives, rocks, or pointy sticks as the weapon of choice in either suicides or homicides.

      The numbers of homicides and suicides in the US can be found here:

      The statistics on Australia are from this:

      It would seem to me there is some potential for a meaningful decline in the number of firearms deaths in the US by restricting gun ownership, but that may just be me.

    5. Anonymous3:46 PM

      Noah, you are wrong. Gun control increases gun crimes and lawful gun ownership decreases gun crimes. Will gun violence go away? Never. There are individuals out there that are just plain evil, and more gun control will only empower these people. And people who support gun control laws also support abortions, therefore care nothing about the well being of children. That link you provided is highly liberally biased. Try this link for truly unbiased stats and info:

  3. with a battle axe of a beerserker

    What do you have against battle axes? (or white protestants?)

    Here is a statue of a certain Bishop holding a battle axe.

  4. Maybe due to space limitations, but you forgot to point out the enormous savings from not imprisoning recreational drug users and the regaining of their productivity if they re-enter the workforce.

    And the disgrace that we imprison a greater fraction of our society than any other nation.

    However, I think proposing radical alternatives to gun regulation will only result in neither happening. Keep it simple, and something could happen.

  5. Say it again, Alice. Finally someone addresses publicly the actual cause of America's atrocious violent crime rates.

  6. Phil Koop7:06 PM

    This is not a comment against ending the war on drugs. Ending the war on drugs is a good idea. However ...

    Those "9,000 souls" are firearm *homicides*. The number who are "shot to death each year" is about triple that - about the same as the number of automotive fatalities, in fact. The difference is accounted for by suicides and accidents. It is doubtful that these categories would be affected by ending the war on drugs.

  7. I wish that those who comment on the gun issues would read Richardson's classic, the Statistics of Deadly Violence, where he looked at all violent deaths from 1820-1950. The statistics will amaze you. and show how in an increasingly polarized world, arguments at the extreme (be it global warming or gun control) designed to trigger emotional response actually prevent logical and ethical solutions.

    We’re not reticent about either side in an argument scaring the heck out of our kids to drive home their points. Imagine what a child feels when they look at much of the advertising around such issues. Having behaved in a way that has made our children feel helpless, powerless and depressed about their future, we then show them websites laced with guns and violence. Why does the outcome surprise us?

    Please see for more details on Richardson, advertising, video games and the political and marketing structure behind the gun trade.

  8. "[F]ew would argue that the illegal drug trade is a significant cause of murders..."

    I think you meant to write "Few would argue that it ISN'T a significant cause of murders..."

  9. Anonymous11:03 PM

    There is plenty wrong with America's drug policy and there are certainly positives to ending the war on drugs, but if we're talking about gun violence then ending the war on drugs will do little to end the domestic violence, suicides, and accidental deaths that guns enable. We should be focusing on guns. And I don't see how gun control is any more politically infeasible than ending the drug war. (Related: The reason any issue is politically infeasible is because there isn't a dedicated group actively pursuing those political goals; we are where are on gun control because we have had decades of well-funded and well-organized pro-gun groups pushing their agenda, with anti-gun groups offering little resistance. Your fatalism about gun control is part of the reason why gun control is politically infeasible. So to everyone who supports gun control: stop it with the fatalism. Grow a political spine. Get organized.)

  10. Anonymous1:50 AM

    Point of view...
    Appreciate your perspective regarding how we grew up "back then". We saw where our food came from, chickens beheaded running around the yard dripping blood, and carrots pulled up screaming from the ground. Life was close to the moment.
    Tom in Tempe

    1. Anonymous1:58 AM

      The comment to which I was responding seems to have disappeared. Sorry for the confusion.
      Tom in Tempe

  11. JR Hulls: if you want more recent statistics, try The Global Burden Of Disease.

    It also includes statistics on accidents and violence, including wars.

    1. Thanks. There are several other similar, more recent studies to which we seem to fail to pay the necessary attention, but I believe it was Richardson who was the first. What is intriguing to me about Richardson is his classification of such events. Makes me think of the Randy Newman song, Political Science, with the great line, "Let's drop the big one now"

  12. On the gun control point: it would be nice to see a charity that collected guns - you give them grandpa's old shotgun, they give you a tax receipt for the "book" value of the gun - and then destroys the guns. In the current political environment it should be easy to raise the funds for the administrative costs of such a scheme.

  13. Anonymous8:14 PM

    Damn motherfucking straight Noah!

  14. Anonymous4:22 AM


  15. "if somehow the 14th Amendment were repealed and this law were passed"

    er, 2nd amendment?

    maybe bona fide gun control works, but the fact is assault weapons are not as significant as handguns. And even then manufacturers find lots of ways around the ban to sell more.

    I agree with almost everything in the article, but I think you are too dismissive of safety and mental illness issues. Appropriate (universal) health care, education and attention to mental illness problems could drastically cut cut on suicides (a lot of which, btw are older people). Second, a lot of firearm deaths are stupid accidental deaths. A 7 year old killed because his dad put his I-thought-it-was-unloaded handgun on the dashboard while strapping the son in. Another 8 year old killed because he got into his dads weapons. Always assume a gun is loaded and never point it at something you do not intend to destroy are a great start, but frankly my chainsaw has more safety features than firearms. Yes, I know you don't want to waste even 15 millisecs in case of a zombie attack or break-in at your house, but frankly I think too many knuckleheads don't have enough respect for firearms, and having a gun in a situation (unlocked, loaded, whatever) where unintended people could get hurt is criminally negligent. When seatbelts became required, a lot of people worried they would not be able to get out of the car in case they when into water or in an accident with a fire, but seatbelts save lives. Same with forearms safety: yes, locks and safes may cost 15 milliseconds in case of zombie attack, but I am confident they save lives.

    1. It's the personal right to property protected in 14th Amdt., sec. 1, Noah was referring to. But that's only in the "due process of law" context, which only requires procedural protections and wouldn't prevent this. What Noah actually means is the Takings Clause of the 5th Amdt. ("nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation").

    2. no - the federal and state govt can confiscate drugs, money, yachts, and other property (without compensation) if its tied to illegal activity. In the 1920s we had prohibition and the govt could confiscate alcohol. They confiscated gold in the 1930s, abrogated gold clauses in debt, then devalued the dollar. The supreme court said it was basically ok, even though gold owners got dollars which was not exactly "like" compensation.

      Neither to 14th nor 5th amendment protect your property when the govt decides its illegal to have it, like the $1 million stash of pot in your basement. It's the 2nd amendment that prevents the govt from banning guns: The govt could ban guns and confiscate them if it were not for the 2nd amendment.

  16. Funny coincidence; I was just saying to a friend that if I ran the asylum---er, country, I'd institute a gun buy-back program, only instead of cash, everyone who handed in their gun got a government-licensed pound of weed, with a certificate entitling you to possess and consume that anywhere.

  17. You write:

    "Oh, but gun control does work."

    Judging by the summary of the article on the page you link to, it provides no evidence on whether gun control works. It is, at most, evidence that reductions in gun ownership not due to gun control work.

    It's easy to think of possible reasons why places where people choose to own fewer guns would have a reduction in the gun homicide rate, but places where people own fewer guns due to legal restrictions would not. To take only one example, legal restrictions will have more effect on law abiding citizens then on criminals.

    That aside, if Noah really thinks a single article concluding that gun ownership reduction reduces homicides (it isn't clear from the summary whether the conclusion is for homicides or only firearm homicides) and concealed carry doesn't reduce crime (with no data at all on number of people taking advantage of concealed carry laws, so far as I could tell) settles the matter, he has a very low standard of proof. I gave up on trying to follow the concealed carry debate (I used to have a page on my site devoted to the subject) years ago, after concluding that I wasn't a good enough statistician to evaluate the increasingly sophisticated arguments being made on both sides.

    Let me suggest an argument against restrictions on firearm ownership (and on concealed carry) which I haven't seen discussed very much, but which is related to the drug control issue. One effect of disarming the general population is to increase the degree to which people feel dependent on police to protect them from crime. One effect of that is to make them more tolerant of high imprisonment rates, SWAT style no-knock raids, and various other activities which I would expect Noah to disapprove of. If you compare the number of people in prison with the number of gun homicides, it looks as though the negative effects of current law enforcement excesses are large compared to the negative effects of gun ownership.

  18. Noah,

    I respect the hell out of most things you write. And even here, you seem to get to the heart of the matter with about 85% of your article. But you have inexplicable opening and closing paragraphs that assert without evidence, and in fact contrary to all the evidence you mention in the rest of the article, that gun control - many different varied measures - is an unequivocal good.

    Above, in the comments you linked to a summary of Duggan's paper on the subject, which uses metric that is of serious concern for several reasons (see here for a detailed analysis:, most importantly because his proxy for changes in gun ownership is entirely inappropriate for measuring marginal ownership and because with expanded data, his results fall apart. I would like to offer another, much broader and more well-founded analysis of the situation published more recently in the Harvard Review of Law and Public Policy:

    There are many papers that claim to show a positive relationship between gun ownership and crime, or perhaps homicides specifically, but in almost every case the relationship fails to hold when a larger data set is considered. As I'm sure you know, if a reliable effect exists, instead of vanishing, it should grow increasingly evident with increased data.

    I would like to add to this that the current discussion of gun control is not to the point of making society a safer one and reducing violent deaths. It is to the point of making people feel safer because certain types of weapons are very scary to a large portion of the population, despite being very rarely used to commit violence compared to familiar and common items such as knives or even bare hands (see the FBI statistics on frequency of homicide using a rifle - most of what the "assault weapons ban" is set to regulate - vs. knives or even "personal weapons", which are fists, feet, etc. ).