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Prohibition's Lessons and Gun Control

Updated on January 27, 2011

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.



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.


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    • Sembj profile image

      Sembj 6 years ago

      Thanks Larry for your very kind comment. Cheers, Sem

    • Larry Fields profile image

      Larry Fields 6 years ago from Northern California

      Voted up and more. Writing a tour de force ain't easy. Neither is drawing a valid historical parallel with a current political issue. And you've done both. Bully for you, Sembj!

    • Sembj profile image

      Sembj 6 years ago

      Thanks Fay Paxton: It seems that the thing that constitutions everywhere have in common is that they create much work for a very large numbers of lawyers. They are all created with the idea of protecting democracy but seem to become problematic as time goes by and they become out-dated.

      Laws too run into problems unless they enjoy popular support and usually cultures have more consensus on things like gun control, birth control and matters of religion than we have at present. It creates a situation where it makes any dramatic change in gun control laws difficult whatever the evidence may say. Sometimes doing the right thing can cause more problems than it solves and it is part of the dilemma that must face Obama.

    • profile image

      Fay Paxton 6 years ago

      Hi Sembj:

      I read this excellent article yesterday and had to go away and think about it. Guess what? I still have no idea what the solution to our gun dilemma is. I do know there are too many guns on the street for any law attempting to control or prohibit them is ridiculous. By now, I think all that can be done is an attempt to place some limitations on the types of guns that are available to the public and ammunition. Having said as much, I believe the second amendment is an ancient relic meant to apply to bygone years.

      voted up and very useful

    • Sembj profile image

      Sembj 7 years ago

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments Tony. It seems ironic that the Constitution does sometimes seem like a road block to common sense reforms. If guns are truly thought to be the people's best guarantee of our freedom, there is an increasingly terrible price to be paid in injuries and deaths. Rarely has there been a time when more controls need to be put in place but it seems to be exactly the same time that people really think hanging on to their guns is very important - is that just a coincidence?

      As you've said, sensible debate is difficult - particularly in the current climate.

      Love and peace, brother


    • tonymac04 profile image

      Tony McGregor 7 years ago from South Africa

      I totally agree that total prohibition does not work - we only have to look at the drug trade to see that. At the same time the easy availability of guns is a problem which many in the State don't seem to want to acknowledge.

      The whole rhetoric about "guns don't kill, people do", linked to the Constituional guarantee of the right to bear arms, makes sensible debate about guns very difficult. Your Hub is a pointer in the right direction, though.

      The prevalence of guns is associated with violence, whichever one looks at it, and so the need to find a way to control access to guns is actually quite urgent.

      I don't have any answers - I just won't ever, ever have a gun myself. Owning a gun is a statement that one is prepared to kill, and I'm not prepared to kill.

      Thanks for an interesting and well-thought-through Hub.

      Love and peace


    • Sembj profile image

      Sembj 7 years ago

      I understand why people who've always owned don't want or see the need for new laws to govern them; passing such laws ends up making criminals of lots of good folks and, as you say, criminals always know where to find one if they want.

      I'm enjoying your Hubs, as I guessed I would. Thanks.

    • Neil Sperling profile image

      Neil Sperling 7 years ago from Port Dover Ontario Canada

      Interesting points. A clear solution is clouded. In Canada we have a gun registry that is costing tax payers far more than any perceived benefit. We recently had a re-run of the law and it was voted back in by such a slim margin no doubt the registry will one day be a part of an election platform and could well be kicked out.

      Bottom line, registered or not - criminals will find a gun if they want one.

      Thanks for your thoughts