So What Are We Going To Do About It?

That's basically what a foreign reporter asked me today, suggesting that the answer must be some new gun control proposal. After all, if someone murdered all these people with a gun, what is America going to do about guns? After past shootings, I got similar questions. Likewise whenever I do talks or debates about gun controls: OK, people say, you say these various gun controls don't work; so what do you propose to do instead, given that there's an undoubted problem out there to be solved?

Well, it turns out that yesterday, about 25 to 40 people were killed in alcohol-related homicides, not including those that died because of their own alcohol consumption. Each year, between alcohol-related drunk driving deaths and alcohol-involved murders, about 10-15,000 Americans (not including the responsible drunk drivers themselves) die. That translates into roughly 25 to 40 deaths per day (the range is wide because the source numbers are necessarily back of the envelope estimates), about the same number as the extra homicide deaths from yesterday's mass shootings. If you counted people whose alcohol consumption killed themselves, the total would likely be far more.

So what are we going to do about it? When are we going to ban alcohol? When are we going to institute more common-sense alcohol control measures?

Well, we tried, and the conventional wisdom is that the cure was worse than the disease -- which is why we went back to a system where alcohol is pretty freely available, despite the harm it causes (of which the deaths are only part). We now only prohibit alcohol abuse, generally allow alcohol purchase and possession, and regulate alcohol purchase and possession fairly lightly. Some of the regulation, such as bans on sales to minors, are quite likely wise (at least as applied to minors; I express no opinion on bans on sales to 18-to-21-year-olds), though imperfect. Others, such as bans on Sunday alcohol sales, are pretty clearly unwise. Others are closer calls, but on balance the answer to "what are we going to do about alcohol-related deaths?" is "not much, other than trying to catch and punish alcohol abuse."

Now the likely pathologies of gun prohibition -- or even of many regulations that fall short of prohibition -- would probably differ in some ways from the likely pathologies of alcohol prohibition. I've talked of some of those likely pathologies elsewhere, but this post is not about that. My point is simply that the right answer to "so what are we going to do about it?," even when the "it" is horrible, is sometimes "not much."

We should certainly consider proposals that aim to ameliorate the problem, and weigh their costs and benefits. But we should not presume that there's somehow a moral imperative to Do Something. In fact, there's a moral imperative not to do something that's likely to make matters worse.