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Prohibition's Lessons and Gun Control
The tragic events in Tucson were bound to raise a debate that is wanted by neither the Democrats nor the Republicans. The unspoken bipartisan agreement to avoid a gun control debate is largely because it’s not an issue that either side can approach with even a modicum of unanimity. Certainly the Supreme Court’s rulings on the Second Amendment in 2008 and 2010 might also give pause to some. Other reasons why it will be difficult to make more than a few changes to laws involving either gun purchases or possession can be gleaned from revisiting Prohibition. A good law is not good for either a country or its inhabitants if it encourages criminal behaviour and disrespect for the law, is one important lesson; and there are other lessons that might frame the arguments about gun control differently.
WOMANS HOLY WAR
With the help of a strong temperance movement, the Constitution was changed when the 18th Amendment was passed in 1919. But from the outset, it was observed more in the breach than the observance. In 1925, Wikipedia notes, there were between 30 to100, 000 speakeasies in New York alone. The Volstead Act (1919) had clarified the Amendment and provided the Feds with the power to prosecute those who produced and sold alcohol, but these laws were often either not enforced or ignored. The Great Experiment, or Prohibition, came to an end in 1933 after the tide of public sentiment had turned with the Saint Valentine’s Day Murders in 1929; the experiment was judged a failure and brought to an end, when the costs to a democracy had become apparent.
Although Prohibition and The Volstead Act didn’t actually prohibit someone from having a whiskey or a beer, it made it virtually impossible to come by a drink that hadn’t been produced, transported or sold illegally. But the eventual demise of Prohibition was not simply recognition of the importance of deep-sixing any legislation that interfered with folks’ freedom to have a drink or two, usually in relatively harmless ways. The demise also recognized that criminalizing something can have worse consequences than licensing, properly restricting, and taxing that same thing.
Some had genuinely believed Prohibition would improve society by removing something that did much obvious harm, particularly to some families, but many others objected because they considered it violated their constitutional rights. None predicted the difficulties in law enforcement, the rise of gangsterism and all of the crime and harm to society that were ushered in by the 18th Amendment. It was indeed an experiment that had failed, and in 1933 the ratification of the 21st Amendment led to its repeal. Since then there has been broad support for the numerous laws and restrictions that control the manufacture of alcohol and its sale.
Those whose behavior is adversely affected by alcohol are held responsible by the law. For instance, if anyone drinks and drives, becomes violent or indulges in many other destructive behaviors, he or she will be accountable. Often these laws change to reflect evidence and public sentiment; for instance, laws have tried to keep pace with society’s growing intolerance for those who drink and drive, since evidence shows that they are more likely to cause accidents and fatalities. Freedoms of all kinds are limited simply to protect others.
If guaranteeing freedom was just a balancing act that made sure the rights of the individual didn’t improperly interfere with the rights of other individuals, it would be difficult enough; however, the reality imposed by the layering in of politics, strong sentiments and lobbyists, among other things, make it a great deal more difficult to find consensus, thus virtually impossible to find a good policy. (Laws that inflict the least harm are usually considered best in such circumstances – perhaps the military’s policy of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” is a good example of ‘a least harm law’; it's the best compromise but makes few happy.)
A good law in a democracy requires a large base of public support if it’s going to succeed, otherwise, in most cases, it will be judged poor. But “Good” and “Bad” here refers to the consequences of a law rather than the content of the law itself. Bad laws make criminals or accessories of citizens who are solid, law-abiding, decent folks who do no harm to others; Prohibition made it virtually impossible to have a drink without supporting criminal activity. Legislation and laws that are based on sentiments and thinking that, possibly, is morally and ethically right can have harmful and even disastrous unforeseen consequences.
The Second Amendment will continue to have enormous impact on the lives of many Americans in future. Undoubtedly, the tragedy in Tucson will result in some changes – particularly regarding the checks involved prior to an individual purchasing a gun. But massive public demand along with bipartisan agreement would be required to launch any major change – and that will not happen.
The Center for Disease Control reports annual deaths from guns at about 32,000; this figure includes many avoidable suicides and shootings among families as well as the casualties of criminals and persons of questionable responsibility. The figures are always a topic for argument but the relationship between gun-ownership and unnecessary deaths seems clear. But there are nearly always costs associated with freedoms. The advantages of gun ownership have always been prized more than the costs of restricting ownership, despite the collateral damage; however the number of deaths is calculated.
Statistics and research help establish many other kinds of limits to our freedoms. For instance, the law and most individuals recognize that speeding in residential areas is particularly dangerous and can cost lives and cause injuries. Lowering speed limits restricts the numbers who are injured or worse, but avoiding all injuries is an impossible goal since it would reduce the speed and freedom of motorists more than is acceptable given present technology. Speeding laws on residential and other roads is a calculus that always results in some injuries and deaths – some unavoidable – but we don’t ban driving or cars. Irresponsible drivers often commit damage, injury and even kill prior to being identified and stopped suggesting that car ownership may have something in common with gun ownership.
Anyone hoping that the anger and sadness resulting from Tucson or other senseless slayings will result in major changes or challenges to the Second Amendment will be disappointed; the effects of challenging the current rights of gun owners would have far worse consequences. We’ve learned that a good law in a democracy depends on a large consensus – without that agreement, it will end up being judged as “bad”, whatever its intentions.
At this time, there should be general agreement in not making guns easily available to those who’ve been tagged as problematic by legitimate sources but attempts to open a wider debate will inevitably introduce and politicize the problem at the worst of times. The combination of guns and people result in many avoidable deaths – it’s just a dangerous combination. There’s a lot to ponder and the answers seem neither easy nor what we always expect. The disillusionment that’s felt toward Washington owes much to the notion that politicians are too much part of many of the problems, including gun control, rather than a source for their solutions.