Saturday, September 18, 2010

Gun Prohibition Won't Work either

Gun Prohibition Won’t Work Either

Violence in the Mexican drug war is soaring to unprecedented highs. Latest estimates claim that at least half of the guns used in that conflict were purchased in Texas and smuggled into Mexico, which has outlawed personal ownership of firearms. The United States government has announced that it will step up its efforts to interdict those weapons at the border and prevent their movement into Mexico.

However, this gun prohibition will not work. It suffers from the same flaws that prevented prohibitions against alcohol, drugs, gambling, prostitution, or even against counterfeit Gucci bags or pirated movies from working. The harder interdiction is imposed, the higher the price for the contraband soars, and the more ruthless the dealers attracted to the trade become. The result is not suppression of the prohibited trade; it just becomes more expensive, corrupt, and violent.

The only effective means to suppress or moderate a functioning market are those that operate on the demand side of that market. The market for tobacco provides a good example. The number of tobacco users has decreased by about 60 per cent (from over half of the adult population to about twenty per cent) through the use of three techniques: research into the psychology and physiology of tobacco use, education of users and potential users, and limitations on advertising.

While those tools against tobacco use have taken about fifty years to work, in Mexico, the United States has a much stronger tool than any of these to use against the demand for guns. The United States government has total control over the more than $30 Billion that, each year, is spent by American users and fuels the Mexican drug wars. That sum is a conservative estimate of the amount that the U.S. drug laws pump into the Mexican economy annually: an amount that is one of the top four sources of foreign money in the Mexican economy.

This money generated by the American drug laws has two effects on the demand for guns in Mexico. The most important is that control of that money is what the cartels are fighting over and what allows them to fend off the Mexican government. The second is that the money is necessary for the purchase of the guns themselves.

While Mexican society has always had a machismo strain of violence dating back to at least the time of the Spanish conquest, the current cartel wars have multiplied that violence into a different phenomenon. The best comparison, although on a smaller scale, is the way civil unrest exploded in Colombia with the growth of the cocaine market in the 1980s. Mexico’s violence is similar to – but much larger than – the gang violence that erupted in Chicago when millions of illegal alcohol dollars flooded the city. Greedy, ruthless men fought and killed to get their share of the loot. Without the money, violence in Mexico would quickly fade to the much lower historical levels, just as it did in Chicago with the repeal of prohibition.

If large amounts of money were removed from the equation, the demand for guns would decrease for a second reason: guns cost money. And the military-grade arms now in demand cost a lot of money. A single rifle like a Kalashnikov can cost up to a thousand dollars. Machine guns and rocket launchers go for much more. Without the illegal drug money, the cartels would be limited to guns more typical of a street criminal than the Pentagon quality arms they now use.

However, this proposal rests on two other questions: can the United States afford to purge its laws of drug prohibition and how much would those changes affect the Mexican cartels?

The U. S. not only can, but should, change its drug laws from ones based on prohibition to a new approach based on regulating and lowering demand. Almost no one doubts that the current prohibition approach – now ninety-five years old – has been an abject failure. More people are addicted to opiates today than were addicted in 1914; and marijuana, used by fewer than 100,000 people in 1937 when it was outlawed, has been used by over 40% of today’s adults. The latest FBI data shows over 1.6 million drug arrests in 2009, but anyone in America can easily buy any drug in any community in the country. The War on Drugs has cost over $1 trillion, and the only results are increased drug use, the highest imprisonment rate in the world, and high levels of violence and corruption. When one finds himself in the bottom of a deep hole, he should stop digging and look for a way out.

Would changing American drug laws put the Mexican cartels out of business? Replacing prohibition with regulation would hurt the cartels in two ways.

First, illegal drug prices are at least ten times as high as the equivalent legal prices would be. The risk premiums associated with prohibition are the lure that attracts violent gangsters to the business in the first place. Legal heroin was sold for the same price as aspirin. Legal cocaine was cheap enough to be used as an ingredient in Coca-Cola and tooth powder. Marijuana is no harder to grow and process than broccoli. If ninety per cent or more of the money were withheld from the cartels, they would probably get out of the business. But even if they continued as dealers, they could not afford to buy black market military-grade arms.

More important, the very market supporting the cartels would probably disappear. Local American farmers can out produce and undersell Mexican competition. This displacement is already happening in California. Walgreens could buy legal cocaine directly from Colombia, bypassing the Mexican middlemen entirely – or they could grow and process it themselves in Hawai’i. Pharmacists already sell methamphetamine under the trade name Desoxyn. Mexican sources are just not needed.

The way to stop the arms traffic into Mexico is not to erect another form of prohibition scheme guaranteed to fail like all prohibitions must fail. The wise approach, instead, is to replace the current destructive prohibitions that fuel that traffic with a system of demand-oriented regulation controlling the demand side of the market.


  1. Actually the "Amercan" guns are stolen from Mexican armories. And how do the Mexicans get them? American Military Assistance. It is the US government supporting US arms manufacturers. Heh.

    The actual number of smuggled guns is on the order of 4%. With the usual fudge factors given that no one really knows.

    And the most popular gun? The AK-47 and variants. Not exactly American made.

    Still. Your point is right on.

  2. Let me add that I convinced the JPFO to change its stance on the drug war when I explained to them that drug prohibition was going to lead to gun prohibition.