Reducing Gun Violence By Legalizing Drugs

In the wake of the Newtown massacre, there has, understandably, been a new wave of advocacy of policy proposals aimed at preventing future incidents of the same kind. However, gun violence in schools is already extremely rare, with the average child far more at risk of dying in a car accident or backyard pool accident than in school. And we are unlikely to reduce the already low incidence of mass shootings by gun control or other policy changes. Fortunately, as Yale law professor Dan Kahan explains at the Cultural Cognition Project blog, we can achieve a significant reduction in gun violence by legalizing drugs:

[W]hile the empirical evidence on the relationship between gun control and homicide is (at this time at least) utterly inconclusive, there certainly are policies out there that we have very solid evidence to believe would reduce gun-related homicides very substantially.

The one at the top of the list, in my view, is to legalize recreational drugs such as marijuana and cocaine.

The theory behind this policy prescription is that 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.

The evidence is ample. In addition to empirical studies of drug-law enforcement and crime rates, it includes the marked increase in homicide rates that attended alcohol prohibition and the subsequent, dramatic deline of it after repeal of the 18th Amendment.

Kahan makes a number of other good points in his post, and cites lots of additional evidence. As they say, read the whole thing.

As an extra bonus, this approach to reducing gun violence doesn’t threaten anyone’s civil liberties or Second Amendment rights. It would actually increase protection for civil liberties by cutting back on the many abuses associated with the War on Drugs, such as bogus asset forfeitures and paramilitary police raids that often kill or injure innocent people, and the erosion of the Fourth Amendment. And, unlike stepped-up gun control or “zero tolerance” policies of the sort we got after Columbine, it would actually save the government a great deal of money by reducing expenditures on enforcement efforts and prisons. Drug legalization would also help promote family values in poor communities, which is both good in itself and might help reduce violence still further.

As President Obama said in Newtown, “we can do better than this” when it comes to curbing gun violence. Cutting back on the War on Drugs is a great place to start. Polls show that marijuana legalization, at least, is rapidly gaining in popularity. That might give the president and other politicians the chance to effect change we can believe in in this field.

UPDATE Mark Kleiman briefly responds to this post and Kahan’s here:

Dan Kahan and Ilya Somin are entirely correct. If you simply ignore all the negative consequences of legalizing cocaine, including the violent crimes likely to result from combination use of cocaine and alcohol, then legalizing cocaine looks like a good idea.

But Kleiman doesn’t actually cite any evidence proving that legalizing cocaine will result in any increase in violent crime other than an article showing that people who use alcohol and cocaine simultaneously experience increased “violent thoughts”. There is a big difference between having a thought and actually acting on it, and the article itself is actually agnostic on the question of whether the increase in violent thoughts actually results in increased violent behavior. It notes that the two studies that suggest a link between the combination of alcohol and cocaine and increased violent thoughts are “difficult to interpret due to lack of appropriate control groups.” Kleiman also doesn’t present any evidence suggesting that legalization of cocaine would lead to a significant increase in simultaneous use of cocaine and alcohol. Most importantly, many drugs, including the use of alcohol by itself, increase violent thoughts. That did not prevent the end of Prohibition from causing a major reduction violent crime. The extremely limited evidence cited by Kleiman gives us little if any reason to believe that the results of legalizing cocaine would be different.