On the same day that the Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony on assault rifles, background checks, and gun rights, 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton was shot to death on the South Side of Chicago. No one outside her neighborhood would have heard of Hadiya if she weren’t exceptional: an honors student, a majorette who marched in President Obama’s inaugural parade. But the cause of her death—reportedly gang violence, striking someone too young to die—is unexceptional.
When we talk about gun violence, we talk about mental health and high-capacity magazines because we want to stop the rare but attention-grabbing mass shootings in middle-class suburbs. We talk less about the gun violence that claims young people in our impoverished inner cities as a matter of routine.
But we need to be talking about the kind of commonplace brutality most of us could never imagine, and about the drug prohibition that feeds it. We need to ask ourselves: Could ending the war on drugs be one of our best weapons in preventing gun violence?
Jim Gierach, a former Chicago-area prosecutor, notes that 80 percent of homicides in Chicago are gang-related. “And what’s the business of gangs? Obviously, drugs,” he told Campus Progress in an interview. “We can change drug policy. ... It’s the way to reduce violence that’s easy, the one that’s obvious.”
It's Black Markets 101, experts said: Drug prohibition breeds gun violence. A prohibited substance, especially an addictive one, can yield tremendous profits for organizations that can afford the many costs associated with smuggling. By definition, you can’t get legal protections to sell an illegal product. And when high profits are at stake and the courts are out of the picture, justice is often administered through violence.
“Black market trading routes are somewhat equal-opportunity,” said Trevor Burrus, a research fellow with the Cato Institute. “A black market route for drugs can become a black market route for guns. It’s difficult to quantify, but unquestionably a huge factor.”
Studies show that the black market for alcohol during Prohibition led to increased homicides [PDF]—despite the fact that alcohol consumption, which is correlated with murder, went down. Homicides dropped by about half not long after Prohibition’s repeal, but thanks largely to the war on drugs, the late 20th century saw another spike [PDF] in the murder rate.
Four decades and and $1.5 trillion later, the United States' war on drugs has not only failed to reduce illegal drug abuse, it has failed to ensure the safety of our major cities and our young people.
Criminologist Alfred Blumstein of Carnegie Mellon University wrote in a 2011 report [PDF] that more punitive sentences for drug offenders came into fashion in the 1980s and 1990s, when the crack violence epidemic raged and politicians feared being called “soft on crime.” But as career criminals went off to serve long sentences, younger replacements stepped up—young enough to have much poorer impulse control with the guns they carried for protection from robbers. The number of gun homicides perpetrated by teens and youth under the age of 24 quickly skyrocketed.
“If we arm kids because they’re in the drug business, we arm them for every purpose,” Gierach said. An argument or a score-settling that should mean a black eye could mean a bullet instead.
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