Voodoo Social Policy

Exorcising the twin demons, guns and drugs

When Rep. Ronald Coleman changed his mind and decided to support the so-called assault weapon ban approved by the House last spring, the Texas Democrat said he wanted to "make it harder for drug thugs and gangs to get the machine guns that wantonly kill our police officers and children." Coleman was wrong to think that the legislation he was about to vote for had anything to do with machine guns, but let's pass over that point for now. His remark is interesting for another reason: It concisely expresses and draws upon the symbolic power of both firearms and mind-altering chemicals, as represented by the gun- toting drug dealer, the nightmare of every parent and suburbanite.

Coleman was seeking to discredit guns by associating them with drug dealing. But the image works both ways. Drug warriors try to instill fear of illegal substances by linking them to gun violence. Thomas Constantine, director of the Drug Enforcement Administration, recently told The Washington Times: "Many people talk about the nonviolent drug offender. That is a rare species. There is not some sterile drug type not involved in violence who is contributing some good to the community. That is ridiculous. They are contributing nothing but evil." Thus, supporters of gun control and drug control both use the threat posed by violent, lawless people to justify banning inanimate objects.

Gun control and drug control are usually associated with opposite ends of the political spectrum. Presidents Reagan and Bush were eager to pursue the war on drugs but generally wary of gun control. President Clinton has made gun control a major goal, while his drug strategy is almost invisible. But these two policies have much in common at both a philosophical and a practical level. Both blame inanimate objects for complex social problems, promising to control crime and disorder by controlling their symbols. And both are ultimately harmful, for many of the same reasons.

Given the symbolic power of guns and drugs, it's not surprising that efforts to control them have been shaped by racism and xenophobia, by fear of outsiders and the disruption associated with them. In the United States, attempts to ban inexpensive handguns have historically been motivated by fear of blacks and members of other minority groups.

After the Civil War, several Southern states passed laws aimed at limiting access to cheap firearms by emancipated blacks. In 1870, Tennessee banned the sale of all but the most expensive handguns, which blacks generally could not afford. Arkansas enacted a similar ban in 1881. In 1902, South Carolina passed a law forbidding pistol sales to anyone except "sheriffs and their special deputies." In 1893, Alabama imposed heavy taxes on handgun sales with the aim of making them too expensive for blacks or poor whites to buy. Texas followed suit in 1907.

In the early 20th century, as David Kopel reports in his 1992 book, The Samurai, the Mountie, and the Cowboy, concerns about immigrants from central, southern, and eastern Europe fed support for gun-control measures in the Northeast. In 1903, for example, the New York Tribune complained about pistols found "chiefly in the pockets of ignorant and quarrelsome immigrants of law-breaking propensities" and condemned "the practice of going armed...among citizens of foreign birth." In 1911, the same year The New York Times noted a disturbing fondness for handguns among "low-browed foreigners," New York passed the Sullivan Law, which required handgun owners to obtain police permits. The law gave local authorities a great deal of discretion to prevent "undesirables" from legally owning handguns.

The first person sentenced under the law, an Italian immigrant, was lectured by the judge: "It is unfortunate that this is the custom with you and your kind, and that fact, combined with your irascible nature, furnishes much of the criminal business in this country." Kopel reports that 70 percent of those arrested in the first three years after the Sullivan Law went into effect had Italian surnames.

More recently, the federal Gun Control Law of 1968 banned mail-order guns and cheap, military-surplus imports, largely because these firearms were thought to be favored by black rioters and militants. The connection was not lost on Eldridge Cleaver of the Black Panthers, who noted in 1968: "Some very interesting laws are being passed. They don't name me; they don't say, take the guns away from the niggers....They don't pass these rules and these regulations specifically for black people. They have to pass them in a way that will take in everybody."

Similarly, although American drug laws were framed in general terms, they were often written with certain groups in mind. In the late 19th century, Western laws dealing with opium were a way of harassing Chinese immigrants, who were resented because they competed with white laborers. In 1881, the California legislature outlawed opium dens, where San Francisco police claimed they had "found white women and Chinamen side by side under the effects of the drug--a humiliating sight to anyone with anything left of manhood."

As Richard Lawrence Miller reports in his book The Case for Legalizing Drugs, cocaine began to be associated with blacks in the public mind early in this century. In 1903, the American Pharmaceutical Association said of the cocaine habit: "The negroes, the lower and criminal classes, are naturally most readily influenced." In 1910 the House Ways and Means Committee heard that "the colored people seem to have a weakness for [cocaine]....They would just as leave rape a woman as anything else, and a great many of the southern rape cases have been traced to cocaine." Stories began to circulate about "cocainized negroes" with superhuman strength who were unfazed by police bullets-- stories that resemble more-recent descriptions of criminals under the influence of PCP.

And just as competition from Chinese immigrants led to a crackdown on opium dens in California, cheap Mexican labor during the Great Depression fed agitation about marijuana in the Southwest. In fact, the drug was then known as "Mexican opium." In 1937, the year that Congress passed the federal ban on marijuana, a Colorado newspaper editor wrote to the Bureau of Narcotics: "I wish I could show you what a small marijuana cigaret can do to one of our degenerate Spanish-speaking residents. That's why our problem is so great; the greatest percentage of our population is composed of Spanish-speaking persons." Like opium and cocaine, marijuana was tied to the rape or seduction of white women.

As these examples suggest, gun laws and drug laws tend to be passed in an atmosphere of hysteria that discourages critical reflection. The Gun Control Act of 1968 was approved soon after the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. In fact, on the very day that Kennedy died, President Johnson issued an impassioned appeal to Congress demanding passage of a federal gun-control law. Two dramatic incidents had helped create a sense of crisis, which Johnson used to his advantage.

President Clinton tried to do something similar after last December's shootings on the Long Island Rail Road. (See "Tactical Tragedies," March.) Indeed, supporters of gun control are always quick to seize upon sensational acts of violence to justify more regulation. The attempted assassination of President Reagan in 1981 ultimately gave us the Brady law, and the Stockton massacre generated "assault weapon" legislation throughout the country. In his book, Kopel describes how dramatic, isolated events have led to major changes in the gun laws of Great Britain, New Zealand, and Australia as well.

A similar pattern can be observed in drug policy. Consider the impact of two high-profile deaths. In 1986 Len Bias, a promising young basketball star, died in his room at the University of Maryland. He had recently consumed large amounts of cocaine and alcohol. That same month, another young sports star, pro football player Don Rogers, died of a cocaine overdose. Coming at a time when the press was hyping the dangers of cocaine, especially in its smokable form, these two deaths helped push the war on drugs to a new level of ferocity.

As Arnold Trebach recalls in The Great American Drug War, "bills were tossed into legislative hoppers all over the country as if they were sandbags heaved onto dikes hastily erected to control a rampaging flood. Measures were proposed on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington to demand mass random urine tests of government officials, to deploy the military to control drug trafficking,...to water down the exclusionary rule...and dozens of other, more repressive recommendations."

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