Voodoo Social Policy

Exorcizing 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."

Which brings us to the impact that gun control and drug control have on civil liberties. Since both policies aim to control things that individuals buy and sell voluntarily, both involve government intrusion into people's private lives. They charge the police with stopping transactions and preventing ownership, which requires surveillance and entrapment. The extent of the intrusion depends upon how extensive the legal restrictions are and how serious enforcement is.

The results are more dramatic in the area of drug control, where broad classes of substances have been banned altogether. The list of trespasses occasioned by drug prohibition is by now painfully familiar. The war on drugs has seriously eroded the Bill of Rights, especially its search-and-seizure, due process, and property-rights provisions, but also the right to counsel, the right to free speech, and the right to the free exercise of religion. The drug laws give the state license to invade our homes, to search our bodies, to monitor our conversations, to take our property, freedom, and lives.

The effect of gun control on civil liberties (aside from the right to keep and bear arms) is less obvious, because the restrictions are less severe. For an idea of what life would be like in the United States if the government got really serious about gun control, take a look at Japan, where private possession of firearms is very rare. Not coincidentally, the Japanese accept a level of police surveillance and intrusiveness, including searches at will, that would be intolerable to most Americans.

Most, but not all. In a recent Los Angeles Times op-ed piece, a writer named Karen Grigsby Bates called for "unannounced sweeps of California, a coordinated effort by local police and sheriff departments and the National Guard to rid the state of guns." She conceded that such an operation would prompt complaints and lawsuits. "It would require arbitrary search and seizure and would make life miserable for all of us," she wrote. "Traffic would be snarled (because checkpoints would be established throughout cities, much like those at border crossings)." Still, Bates said, it would be worth the trouble, because the gun dragnet "would save lives and improve the quality of life." While this article appeared the week of April Fools' Day, I don't think Bates was kidding. I think she was just following the idea of gun control to its logical conclusion.

Even if no one ever takes Bates's advice, U.S. gun-control laws already raise broad civil-liberties concerns. Any jurisdiction that requires a license to own or a permit to carry guns thereby gives police authority to investigate violations, which generates searches and arrests. When categories of guns are banned—such as sawed-off shotguns, so-called assault weapons under state laws, or handguns in some cities—the police may try to disrupt trafficking in addition to arresting people who own the illegal firearms.

Such attempts to enforce gun laws can have deadly consequences. The disaster in Waco, where more than 80 people died, grew out of charges that the Branch Davidians had illegally converted semi-automatic weapons to fully automatic. The federal siege of the Weaver family in Idaho, which resulted in three deaths, started with a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms attempt to entrap Randy Weaver into selling a couple of sawed-off shotguns. (See "Ambush at Ruby Ridge," October 1993.)

In addition to undermining civil liberties, gun control and drug control undermine responsible behavior. Again, this phenomenon is more familiar in the area of drug control.

Prohibition tends to make drugs more concentrated, since traffickers try to minimize the bulk of their contraband and consumers try to get the most bang for their buck at artificially inflated prices. Although the active ingredients are the same, crack and heroin pose more potential problems than coca tea and opium, just as liquor is harder to handle than beer.

Furthermore, prohibition has a disproportionate impact on moderate, responsible users, who are more likely to be deterred by the trouble, expense, and risk of obtaining drugs in the black market. Even so, most people who consume illegal drugs do so moderately. But because they have to conceal their drug use, they can rarely serve as models for others. Instead, it is the most excessive, irresponsible users who are conspicuous and who come to represent the norm in the public mind. This situation is hardly conducive to establishing a culture of responsible use. Instead of neighborhood taverns and coffee houses, it produces shooting galleries and crack houses.

A friend of mine was raised in a household where her parents grew their own marijuana and smoked it openly. Today she uses pot occasionally, and her attitude toward the drug is much like the attitude toward alcohol of someone who grows up in a household of moderate drinkers. The main barrier to extending this sort of socialization is prohibition.

Like drug control, gun control mainly deters law-abiding people. Since the vast majority of criminals get their weapons through the gray or black markets, background checks, waiting periods, and licensing will never have a significant impact on crime. But such measures do impede people who want guns for self-protection or other legitimate reasons.

Gun control's effects on responsible behavior can be seen most clearly in the jurisdictions with the strictest laws. As David Kopel notes, a New York City merchant who keeps an illegal pistol under the counter for self-protection is not likely to take it out for practice at a target range. Even if he managed to obtain a license, he could not legally teach his son how to handle the gun properly. In cities with strict gun control, the main models of gun ownership are criminals and the police. Parents rarely have the opportunity to teach their kids about firearm safety. Recent moves to outlaw gun possession by minors make it even harder to foster a culture of responsible gun ownership.

Indeed, advocates of drug control and gun control deliberately blur the distinction between responsible and irresponsible use. Drug prohibitionists consider any use of an illegal substance to be abuse. When discussing "the drug problem," they commonly do a bait and switch. Arguing for drastic measures, they cite the horrible depredations of drug addiction, offering anecdotes of people who lost their jobs, abused their children, stole, prostituted themselves, or died in accidents or overdoses because of their drug habits. Trying to demonstrate the success of the drastic measures, they cite government statistics showing a decline in casual drug use.

In his 1989 national drug control strategy, William Bennett argued that casual drug users are worrisome and deserve punishment precisely because drugs haven't ruined their lives. By showing that illegal drug use need not lead to disaster, casual users encourage others to follow their example. To prevent such imitation, the government has to crack down on the casual users and thereby show that taking controlled substances has serious consequences. Former L.A. Police Chief Daryl Gates took this argument a step further, declaring that casual users should be taken out and shot as traitors in the war on drugs.

Similarly, the rhetoric of gun-control advocates implicates all gun owners in the crimes of a tiny minority. A recent pamphlet from the ACLU of Southern California asserts that the National Rifle Association "insists on a view of the Second Amendment that defies virtually all court decisions and contradicts findings of most legal scholars. In so doing, the NRA actively perpetuates a seemingly endless cycle of gun-related fatalities." Leaving aside the ACLU's questionable constitutional scholarship, the organization is arguing that Americans who defend their right to keep and bear arms are somehow to blame for violent crime. No matter how law-abiding, responsible, and peaceful you are, if you think you have a right to own a gun, you have blood on your hands.

Another propaganda trick shared by supporters of drug control and gun control is to justify restrictions in the name of children. Janet Cooke's fraudulent Pulitzer Prize-winning story about an 8-year-old heroin addict who never existed epitomizes the sort of pathetic child-in-danger story that is used to stir up anti-drug fervor. Drug warriors never tire of pointing to the young victims of drug abuse, whether children addicted to drugs or children abused by their addict parents. "Crack babies" are ideal for this purpose, since they combine both themes. And notice how California Gov. Pete Wilson responded to the surgeon general's tentative suggestion that legalization should be studied: "Dr. Elders is willing to relegate the youth of America to the perils of addiction and enslavement," he declared.

There's a certain ironic justice to that, actually, because Elders's comments about legalization came after a speech in which she insisted that stricter gun control is needed to save the young people of America. An ad that Handgun Control Inc. ran last year to promote the Brady Bill makes a similar point. The headline reads, in big block letters: "TOO MANY KIDS ARE GETTING A REAL BANG OUT OF LIFE. HELP SAVE THE NEXT GENERATION." Beneath the headline is a photo of Jim Brady in a wheelchair, flanked by quotes from children who are terrified by gun violence. Brady implores, "Do it for our kids."

Focusing on kids is one way to create a sense of urgency. Another gimmick is to speak of guns and drugs as if they were viruses transmitting a deadly disease. The public-health model gives a veneer of science to what should be controversial assumptions about human nature and the proper role of government.

Although "medicalization" is sometimes presented as an alternative to the war on drugs, it plays an important role in rationalizing current policies. The medical model transforms a pattern of behavior—drug use—into a contagious disease that justifies confinement and coercive "treatment." And as we have seen, even the people who use illegal drugs without serious harm need to be treated, because they are "carriers," encouraging drug use by their example. To stem "the epidemic of drug use," drastic measures are necessary.

The medical model is also becoming increasingly popular among supporters of gun control. Medical journals publish articles that advocate stricter gun control on public-health grounds. These articles often present research findings that, upon close examination, have little to do with the conclusions drawn by the authors.

Dr. Arthur Kellermann has published two studies in The New England Journal of Medicine that are widely cited to support the claim that it's a bad idea to keep a gun in the home for self-protection. The first study, published in 1986, was the source of the factoid that a gun in the home is 43 times as likely to kill a resident as it is to kill an intruder. There are several problems with this study, but the most glaring one is that it failed to consider defensive gun uses short of actually killing someone—which, according to research by the criminologist Gary Kleck, represent something like 95 percent of defensive gun uses. Kellermann's other study, published in 1993, shared this crucial defect, in addition to other weaknesses, including a case-control approach that starts with homes where a homicide has occurred, rather than homes where a gun is present.

More troubling than the specific problems with the design and interpretation of such studies is the very idea that gun control is a medical issue. I'll grant you that a physician is the person to see if you happen to have a gunshot wound. But M.D.s have no special qualifications when it comes to evaluating the merits of gun control. They are not criminologists or gun experts. They can claim to speak with authority in this area only by pretending that the misuse of guns is a disease.

In addition to having medical science on their side, supporters of gun control and drug control find that it helps to switch attention periodically to a new, supposedly unprecedented threat. By the time the claims about one threat have been punctured, there's another one to take its place. Among firearms, the bogeymen have included Saturday night specials, assault weapons, and plastic guns—none of which were what the gun-control lobby claimed they were.

Assault weapon is a neologism invented by gun-control advocates to play on the public's confusion of semi-automatic guns with machine guns. The definition of the term has never been clear, having more to do with scary appearances than a gun's actual capabilities. But most supporters of bans on "assault weapons" probably assume that these laws deal with guns that are especially dangerous and frequently used in crimes, neither of which is true.

The so-called plastic gun was a Glock 19 pistol, which is made with some plastic parts but includes over a pound of steel. It shows up on metal detectors and X-ray machines just like any other gun. Yet when the pistol was introduced in the United States, newspaper editorialists were outraged about what they described as an undetectable weapon, suitable only for terrorists.

Among drugs, the bogeymen have included just about every illegal substance at one time or another. Even people who laugh at the ridiculous stories that the government used to tell about marijuana, which supposedly drove people insane and made them commit horrible murders, are prepared to believe much the same thing about crack, PCP, LSD, and even khat, a mild stimulant popular in Africa and the Middle East that made headlines during the U.S. operation in Somalia. (See "Khat Calls," March 1993.)

The most revealing aspect of those horror stories is that the monsters are inanimate objects that somehow cause people to do terrible things. Hence we have the idea that the level of violence is directly proportional to the number of guns available, that there are many crimes that would not have occurred if a gun had not been lying around. Some supporters of gun control even argue that the very presence of a firearm elicits aggression.

And the history of drug prohibition is filled with warnings that reflect a fear of losing control, of being taken over by an outside force. If you smoke marijuana, you will chop up your family. If you take LSD, you will jump out a window. If you inject heroin, you will burglarize homes. If you smoke crack, you will have sex with animals.

Those fears are very powerful, especially when combined with a desire for easy solutions to the crime and violence that threaten everyone's security. Gun control and drug control promise to tame the ugly side of human nature, both within ourselves and within others. That they fail to do so is becoming increasingly hard to deny, but people have a need for demons.