Vice Squad
Friday, April 20, 2007
Of Guns and Drugs

The tragedy in Blacksburg has once again spurred debate about appropriate policy towards firearms. Gun control does not fit into Vice Squad’s ambit, however, because firearms are fraught with externalities (positive and negative) in ways that go well beyond those associated with many manifestations of the traditional vices. That is, on the negative side, when someone misuses a gun, it is often the case (as in Blacksburg, alas) that other people are directly injured or killed. When someone misuses a drug, the direct costs are borne by the user him or herself (though those close to an addict suffer too, of course, as the Guardian article linked to on Wednesday reminds us). To employ John Stuart Mill’s terminology, drugplay tends to be much closer to a ‘self-regarding’ activity than does gunplay.

Nevertheless, gun control debates are marked by what I find to be an interesting parallel with drug policy discussions. Vice Squad has noted before the logically sound proposition that if there were no drugs, there would be no drug problems. That is sort of the macro version of the proposition; there is a micro version, too, that if person A had never used drugs in the first place, he would not have ended up with any drug problems. While unobjectionable so far, the next step in the supposed syllogism, a step to which these propositions are sometimes put, does not follow as a matter of logic. That step is: ...therefore, we should meet any current drug problems (which, macro and micro, occur under our current drug prohibition) with a stricter, more-assiduously enforced prohibition.

These sorts of propositions identify problems after they arise, and then posit that if we had just done something different, these precise problems would not have arisen. Again, these claims are (likely) correct. But what they fail to look at are all the other problems that might arise when their preferred policy is implemented (or that another set of "different" policies might also have prevented the tragedy at issue).

What I find interesting in the gun control debate is that this sort of inappropriately extended logic seems to be used by both sides. Those in favor of increased firearm regulation sometimes employ a direct parallel: no guns means no gun crime, therefore we should do more to eliminate guns. (Or, no guns available to person A means no gun misuse by person A, therefore...) But there’s another version for those who are sympathetic to some slackening of firearm controls. This has to do with the defensive uses of firearms. Anytime someone uses a firearm to commit a violent crime, it is almost surely the case that, had another person been armed with a gun and been in the right place at the right time, that person could have prevented or mitigated the crime. The unsound (as a matter of strict logic) extension, of course, is that therefore we should have more armed people running about.

Note that I am not claiming that either the stricter or liberalized firearm controls are unsound policies. I am only claiming that one piece of logic that is frequently put forward in their defense is far from dispositive and perhaps even false.

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