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Guns and Drugs: Different Scourges, Same Solution?

The nation's outrage at the Sandy Hook massacre has sparked a fierce debate about gun violence. What do drugs have to do with it? Plenty.

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Sandy Hook Memorial Photo via

By Maia Szalavitz

01/02/13

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In the wake of the tragedy at Sandy Hook and the incomprehensible assault that took the lives of 20 elementary school children in a mere 10 minutes, gun control has, not surprisingly, leapt to the top of the political agenda. As we enter this intensely contentious debate, it is very illuminating to also look at an equally fractious issue—drug policy—even though the two problems may at first seem to have little in common but their intractability.

In fact, they have a surprising number of parallels. The arguments against gun control sound an awful like those made for drug legalization: people who really want guns (or drugs) will always find a way to get them; most people who have them don’t hurt anyone; we will never get rid of all of the guns (or drugs) anyway.

When faced with a crime like last month’s massacre, however, the complexity of the two problems—and both the resonances and the discontinuities in the comparison—become clear. By thinking through these issues without regard to the usual kneejerk left/right split, we can come to a better understanding of what ails our policies in both areas.

Let’s start with the similarities. With both drugs and guns, most users won’t have any problems: 90% of marijuana smokers, for example, never become addicted and the same is true for 80% to 90% of cocaine, heroin and alcohol users. Among gun owners, the proportion never harmed is almost certainly even higher.

But there’s a small group of people—let’s call them the "inevitables"—for whom these items are potentially deadly: with drugs, this is obviously addicts and their loved ones; with guns, those who are likely to kill or injure themselves or others. For example, actively suicidal people who seek guns or drugs solely as an aid to their own death. Or relentlessly homicidal people who are going to find some type of weapon to use—or, with drugs, those who are dead set on getting high, whether on alcohol, heroin, speed or, if nothing else is available, gasoline.

If drugs are not available at the moments of peak craving, the danger will pass; similarly, the presence of a gun can turn one thoughtless moment into a deadly disaster.

For the inevitables, prohibition is going to fail, no doubt about it. If they don’t find the specific tool of choice to do the job, they’ll find another. The problem is not just the supply of guns or the drugs—although that can make a difference in the ultimate body count—but the people who seek them and their underlying issues, which range from childhood trauma and mental illness to genetic predispositions, poverty and plain old-fashioned orneriness. Addressing these social and psychological issues is crucial to solving this part of the problem.

However, there’s also a group of people who will be brought down only by something specific: we can dub them the “evitables.” With drugs, this may involve people who have a genetic predisposition for cocaine addiction—but who do fine if they drink or smoke weed and never encounter cocaine. With guns, the evitables include people who will kill if they have a detached means of doing so, but who otherwise lack the physical or mental capacity to do something as “hands on” as stabbing or strangling someone.

Both impulsivity and contingency play a role: if drugs are not available at the moments of peak craving, the danger will pass, potentially preventing worsening addiction or overdose; similarly, the presence of a gun can turn one thoughtless moment into a deadly disaster that simply would not have occurred if the perpetrator had had time to “cool off” before getting the gun.

It’s nearly impossible to know in advance, however, whether someone will belong to the inevitables or the evitables or to the much larger group who will have no issues at all with drugs or guns—just as no one can yet ascertain whether the college drinker will wind up as a skid row resident or an American president. There are some decent predictors, which should be studied for use in regulation—particularly in relationship to mental illness—but they aren’t accurate enough to offer a solution.

Yet we do know that with both drugs and guns, there is a strong relationship between availability and related harm. For example, teens with a gun in their home, who typically were not the purchaser of the weapon, are twice as likely to die from suicide as those who do not have ready access to a firearm; states with the greatest accessibility of guns have double the suicide rate of those with the least access. Similarly, people who move even just a half-mile closer to a bar increased their odds of becoming a heavy drinker by 17%, according to a recent study of over 55,000 Finnish adults.

Clearly, then, it is possible to lessen the degree of harm caused by drugs or guns by controlling their supply, making it less likely that the evitables will have access when they are most vulnerable. But reducing harm is actually easier through strategic regulation than by outright prohibition.

With alcohol and other drugs, the failure of prohibition is obvious. In the 1920s and early1930s, Prohibition reduced but never eliminated alcohol consumption; it also not only led to the deaths of thousands by poisoned alcohol intended to deter use but drove a widespread spree of organized violent crime. Drug prohibition has similarly failed: supply has been driven underground, abetting organized crime and the development of life-threatening diseases; it has also led the US to incarcerate a greater proportion of its citizens than any other country at an incredible human and financial cost.

By dramatic contrast, gun prohibition has not been tried here—and as the current public debate shows, it would be met with fierce resistance among millions of gun-loving, Second Amendment-absolutist citizens; the implementation of such interventions as assault-weapon buybacks, which have proved effective in other countries, also poses a much greater challenge in a country where there is already nearly one gun for every one of our 300 million people.

But policy success has been seen in countries that strictly regulate the types of guns and ammunition that are allowed—and the same is true where drug use is managed through measures like alcohol taxes and restrictions on sales outlets, decriminalization of drug possession and focusing law enforcement on the most violent dealers of dangerous drugs, not on nonviolent and marijuana suppliers.

The many similarities between the potentially dangerous supply and demand of drugs and guns suggest that the middle way of regulation is where the solution will be found: the extremes of lax regulation with unlimited marketing or total prohibition simply do not allow for effective control. A world of Marlboro crack advertised 24/7 and gun-vending machines on every corner is not one most people would want to live in; likewise, most would oppose a national policy where every move was scrutinized and blood and body fluids constantly tested to ensure compliance with the law.

But the differences are also telling. Unlike guns, drugs are not deliberately made for injury or killing; they can and often do simply offer harmless pleasure, escape and sometimes even enlightenment. Arguably, a day at a shooting range could offer similarly safe entertainment, but it still contains a link to violence that is simply not essential to the drug experience.

Another difference is the violence created by the drug trade under prohibition itself—a category of crime absent from legal trade. There have been no alcohol dealing–related shootouts so common during Prohibition because legitimate businesses can take their disputes to the safe and lucrative venue of the legal system.

The similarities between the dangerous supply and demand of drugs and guns suggest that the middle way of regulation is the solution.

Similarly, violence related to the drug trade—like the 50,000 people killed in Mexico’s drug crackdown since 2006—would evaporate if drugs were regulated rather than prohibited. In the US, between 5% and 25% of murders are linked to the drug trade, according to a recent CDC study.

Good data would make determining the best type of regulation easier: for example, modeling the proportions and patterns of people who are “evitable” or “inevitable” drug or gun casualties would help identify those likely to cause the greatest amount of harm. Oddly, little such critical research is conducted on drugs, according to Dr. Phil Coffin, the head of substance use research for the San Francisco Department of Public Health, who recently did a modeling study of naloxone to prevent overdose death.

Of course, even if we had conclusive data it still might not be able to budge the seemingly intransigent debates over both of these issues. But opening this parallel gun/drugs discussion might help us make progress out of the current demoralizing stalemate. By looking to the best cases made by proponents of regulation, legalization and control on both sides of the political spectrum, everyone gains. And who knows—we might just get closer to preventing small tragedies like one person’s addiction as well as large ones like Sandy Hook.

Maia Szalavitz is a columnist at The Fix. She is also a health reporter at Time magazine online, and co-author, with Bruce Perry, of Born for Love: Why Empathy Is Essential—and Endangered (Morrow, 2010), and author of Help at Any Cost: How the Troubled-Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids (Riverhead, 2006). 

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