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October 6, 2015
Yes, again. One more crazed gunman spraying bullets into a crowd of innocent people. One more terrifying death toll. One more tragedy in a seemingly endless succession of frighteningly similar scenarios. How can we let the senseless slaughter continue?
The real question, of course, is how can we stop it? Once again there will be a chorus of answers. Well, mostly the same answer as always. The call for stricter gun laws and stricter enforcement. Keep guns out of the hands of all the crazies out there. No law-abiding citizen needs a gun anyway, and especially not high-powered rapid-fire weapons designed for military use. The Second Amendment is an irrelevant, outdated relic of a different era. Etcetera, etcetera. And, especially when we are all reeling from the latest massacre, there is an understandable appeal to such simple solutions. No guns would mean no shootings. But I have an even simpler solution. We should all just stop shooting each other. And these two simple solutions are equally likely to happen.
It is simply not possible to keep people from getting guns. America has a long history of trying to keep things away from people by passing laws against them. Perhaps the most notorious example is Prohibition, when the great social evil targeted by legislators was alcohol. We all know how that worked out. It launched a huge black market that made alcohol readily available and spurred organized crime to new levels. Now there is the war on drugs, with the same results. Huge black market, readily available drugs, and unending violence by criminal cartels. Laws against prostitution have followed suit. Plenty of prostitutes of all genders and all ages and untold violence, especially against the women and children the laws are supposed to protect.
Attempts to ban things that a lot of people want and are prepared to pay for cause black markets. It is one of the simplest and most predictable laws of economics. And because black markets operate outside the law, they inevitably involve a great deal of violence. Liquor companies and tobacco companies compete through advertising, while drug cartels compete through open gunfire that often claims the lives innocent victims caught in the crossfire. The only thing that attempted bans do not do is stop the supply of the banned commodity. It is the responsibility of those who advocate stronger gun control laws to show why a ban on guns would work when so many other bans have failed so miserably.
What actually would happen is what always happens. When legal sources like gun shops and gun shows disappeared, illegal sources would fill the vacuum. The legislators who passed the new gun laws could not repeal the law of supply and demand. I do not know where people who want guns would go to get them. But, quite honestly, I do not know where people who want illegal drugs get them, either. They do get them, though, and the ones who want guns would get those, too. There is already a market in illegal guns, and it would simply expand to meet the increased demand. Where would all these guns come from? Some would still be made in America, legally or illegally. Others would be brought in from anywhere in the world, just like drugs. Existing channels of distribution would be used and new ones would be created. Money finds a way.
So what is the answer to America’s horrific record of gun violence? I do not know. I have seen statistical comparisons between our percentage of deaths by gunshot and the percentages in other countries. The difference is alarming. We cannot be blamed for feeling that something has to be done about it. And perhaps something can be done. But not the same old prohibition approach that never works. If there is a solution, it is certain to be a much more difficult and complicated one. It would require a sophisticated analysis of our society and, probably, some fundamental social changes. Changes that may not be possible. And that is what scares people so much. No one wants to admit that such a severe problem may have no solution. It feels so much better to believe that all we have to do is pass a new round of laws. But I would rather admit that this cannot work and begin to explore other possibilities that might have at least some chance of accomplishing something.