Would ending the "War on Drugs" reduce gun violence?
Hopes&Fears answers questions with the help of experts who know what they are talking about. Today we ask the experts about the link between the illicit substance economy and gun-related violence.
For the first time in over 60 years, firearms are killing as many people as motor vehicles in the US. A polarizing debate about gun ownership in the America endures. Unified in our conviction to curb gun violence but set at odds in what that solution may be, there has been little progress toward finding common ground.
Amidst the debates, it has been suggested that ending the War on Drugs may be more effective toward reducing gun violence than any of the currently proposed gun control regulations, citing that a large portion of gun-related homicides are related to drug trafficking and gang violence.
Would ending the War on Drugs effectively reduce gun violence in America? We asked experts public policy, crime prevention, psychology and gun policy research about the controversial proposal.
Senior Vice President for Public Affairs, Third Way
That’s a big question. My guess is that the answer is that it would help, but by no means cure, the problem.
While most national attention is focused on big, awful, but rare events like San Bernadino and Sandy Hook, the overwhelming majority of gun violence happens in ones and twos—the appallingly familiar “garden variety” murders that happen on the order of 30+ per day. A significant percentage of those murders involve the drug trade, so taking the commerce in drugs off the streets would certainly help.
ut as far as I’m aware, no mainstream policymakers are talking about legalization of all drugs. As long as heroin, cocaine, and meth are illegal—and I think that will be for the rest of our lives at a minimum—there will be illegal commerce in drugs. And as long as that happens, there will be gun crime to go with it.
So while I (and Third Way) support decriminalization and efforts to change the way we handle illegal drugs and crimes of possession, etc., I’m not convinced it will have a huge impact on gun violence. Moreover, many gun crimes do not involve drugs at all. Gang violence is often over turf or perceived slights, or over other illegal commerce such as prostitution. Removing some drugs from the mix would help, but it is by no means the only things we need to do.
Dr. Philip Cook
Professor of Public Policy Studies, Duke University
I’m not sure what it means to end the war on drugs: legalize cocaine and heroin? More likely we might move in the direction of reducing prison sentences for illicit possession and dealing, but the illicit market would remain in place.
Anyway, I think you should point out that the current homicide rate in the US is similar to what existed in the postwar era up through the early 1960s, before the Vietnam Era heroin epidemic. Violence rates have come down to a remarkable degree since 1993. In part that is because the violence in connection with crack distribution fell for reasons that are not well understood.
Attorney and former board member and vice chairman of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition
In my opinion, yes, ending the War on Drugs would effectively reduce gun violence more than any other possible reform or change, or set of other possible reforms or changes. This is based upon my experience that includes prosecuting as a Cook County assistant state's attorney in the early 1970s assigned to homicide court and the homicide unit of the Cook County Grand Jury, a dozen years as a village prosecutor, 45 years of practice, 25 years in drug policy reform movement, as an Illinois Constitutional Convention delegate in 1970 that dealt with gun issues, as an author of many letters and articles regarding violence, drugs, gangs and gun policy, and draftsman of LEAP's proposed amendment to UN drug treaties.
My opinion is dependent on economic realities. If people have a valuable commodity—and prohibited drugs are the most valuable commodity on the face of the earth—in their pocket and someone tries to steal the drugs, or steal the money they made selling them, or commandeer the corner where they are able to make such transactions in huge and unlimited numbers, then they are going to want to protect those valuables, precipitating gun violence. When Al Capone’s business became legal, rampant prohibition violence ended—the bombings, the turf wars, the gang shootings. Substance prohibition changes everything for the worse, just as ending prohibition changes everything for the better.
Here in Chicago, we have one retaliatory shooting after another as kids fighting over turf. Former Chicago Police superintendent Gary McCarthy has said that 80% of the homicides in Chicago are gangs fighting over drug turf. Every time we have such a shooting, the victim is someone’s brother, partner, or friend, and so there is retaliation. It goes back and forth endlessly.
Ending the War on Drugs would absolutely be more effective than any currently proposed gun laws, regulations, or enhanced gun penalties. People who are in the illegal drug business aren’t going to care about the rules. They already want guns that don’t have serial numbers, that are untraceable. Right now we have laws that prohibit a convicted felon from possessing a gun. But when we let them out of prison and they have a criminal record for selling drugs, they are effectively unemployable and have little choice but to return to the drug business that necessitates that they possess a gun. People come out of prison stamped "convicted drug felon" and can’t get a job, even if he or she earned a college degree while incarcerated. No one is going to hire a drug felon. We never should have criminalized adult consensual behavior, and that’s what we’ve done with the failed War on Drugs.
We have so much trouble because of the War on Drugs—it isn’t just the guns. The War on Drugs has two principal failings: number one, it’s the most effective way to spread uncontrolled and unregulated drugs everywhere. Its second problem is that it’s at the heart of many crises: the guns, the gangs, the crime, the prisons, the taxes, the trade imbalance, drug overdoes, and even the corruption of police. It causes policing for profit instead of policing for the protection of the public, because it incentivizes drug busts instead of crime-fighting. Police share in the plunder from seized and forfeited drug money and property. Under current federal drug seizure rules, basically half of the money goes to the local law enforcement agency and half goes to the federal government.
We can have safe streets or drug prohibition, but not both. Even with an estimated 350 million firearms in private hands in America, ending the War on Drugs will remove the most common motivation that drives [non-suicidal] gun violence, dwarfing the comparative value of more gun laws.
Number of people arrested in 2014 in the U.S. on nonviolent drug charges
400 - 600
drug-related murders annually (2007-2011) that occurred during a narcotics felony (trafficking, manufacturing, etc.), not including drug-related robberies and gang violence.
Daniel W. Webster, ScD
Director at Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research
I do think ending the war on drugs—or significantly changing our policies concerning drugs and drug law enforcement—lead to less gun violence. Our country has adopted the War on Drugs approach not only to reducing illegal drug use, but to reducing violent crime. We have invested unimaginable resources toward drug law enforcement and incarceration with precious little investment in research to rigorously evaluate its impact on violent crime and drug abuse. It is difficult to find a study showing that drug law enforcement reduces violence, but there are many studies—each with important limitations—showing the opposite; that is, traditional get-tough crackdowns on drug sellers leading to more violence. But none of these studies provide me with a clear estimate of how large a reduction in gun violence we might expect. It is difficult to assess the long-term negative effects of the drug war on gun violence; the effects of restricted employment opportunities for those with drug arrests. But the effects are likely to be large. We have research to show that laws that restrict high-risk individuals from possessing guns, universal background checks with handgun purchaser licensing reduces criminal gun use, homicides, and suicides.
The lone exception is pattern of futility is David Kennedy’s focused deterrence approach. There is a famous study of focused deterrence approach to reduce drug selling in High Point, NC. An evaluation of that effort estimated that it led to a 12%-18% reduction on violent crime. But it is a much more targeted intervention to drug law enforcement that was coupled with supportive services and community pressure on the drug sellers. The focused deterrence approach has been far more effective both in consistent positive effects and the size of the effects when targeted at urban gun violence. Police and prosecutors target offenders but often use drug laws to bring cases against violent offenders because getting convictions for violent crime is far more difficult when victims and witnesses are intimidated against testifying against gang members.
Decriminalizing drugs is not going to be much easier politically than putting in place stronger measures to reduce gun violence because the most effective gun policies enjoy large support among gun owners. I can identify a number of state gun laws that are in effect and having a protective effect against gun violence. I cannot identify a state that has completely reformed their drug laws. Maybe we’ll see that soon.
I see no reason to select one direction over another. Smarter drug laws and drug law enforcement would significantly reduce gun violence. The same is true for stronger, smarter gun laws and gun law enforcement.
Gun violence in 2015 as of December 28th
Total Number of Incidents
Officer Involved Incidents