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Monday, March 25, 2013

David Brooks, "The Killing Chain": Can Gun Control Legislation Be Compared with Prohibition?

Can parallels be drawn between current attempts to circumscribe the sale of guns in the US and prohibition in America, which, from 1920 to 1933, sought to thwart the sale, manufacture, and transportation of alcohol? I think so.

In a provocative New York Times op-ed entitled "The Killing Chain" (, David Brooks observes that if you decided to write a novel about a murder, there would be "a complex series of links leading up to the ultimate homicide" that you would want to describe. Brooks next observes:

"Over the last 25 years, American authorities have tried to interrupt that killing chain at almost every link except one. In a hodgepodge but organic manner, there have been vast changes in proactive policing, mentoring programs, gang eradication programs, incarceration rates, cultural attitudes and so on. The only step in the killing chain that we haven’t really touched is gun acquisition. Federal gun control laws have become more permissive over the last several years.

This de facto approach — influencing the whole killing chain except gun acquisition — has nonetheless contributed to a phenomenal decline in violence. Murder rates over all have fallen by about 50 percent, back to levels not seen since the Kennedy administration."

Brooks, however, observes, that it is difficult to control the sale of firearms in the US:

"But the sad fact is that gun acquisition is probably the link on the killing chain least amenable to influence. We live in a country that already has something like 250 million guns floating around. It’s hard retroactively to get a grip on them."

Brooks's conclusion:

"We have a successful history of reducing violence by spreading efforts across the killing chain. We have a disappointing history of trying to reduce violence with a gun-obsessed approach. Let’s focus on what works."

I would observe that Brooks's estimate of the number guns floating around America is conservative. I have seen considerably higher estimates, some exceeding 300 million.

Given this number, I think it is impossible to prevent a determined criminal from obtaining a gun in America. A gun can always be obtained for a price. However, background checks can prevent weapons from finding their way into the hands of persons with psychiatric records.

Now consider the number of persons killed by firearms in the US in 2011: 8,583 according to the FBI (see: This compares with 9,878 people who died in drunk driving crashes in 2011 (see: The numbers are not too far apart.

Given the number of people who died last year in the US as a result of drunk driving, why are we not hearing calls for a reintroduction of prohibition? Unlike guns, alcohol is a commodity that is consumed and must be constantly manufactured in order to maintain stocks, as opposed to guns which, if well oiled, last forever and whose number is constantly swelling. A renewed ban on the sale of alcohol could presumably reduce the number of drunk driving deaths. So why isn't Congress drafting legislation to again prevent the sale, manufacture and transport of alcohol? Obviously, Americans are not willing to forgo their consumption of alcohol, which is not protected by the Constitution.

Are Americans willing to forgo their right to own firearms, which is protected by the Constitution (yes, I know this is the subject of debate)? Apparently not.

Of course, we all want to feel good about ourselves and believe that we are doing something to prevent another outrageous shooting. Moreover, I personally agree that there is no place for assault weapons on the market. But will this put the genie, i.e. more than 250 million guns in America, back in the bottle? No way.

Which is why I believe Brooks is correct: Intensive efforts must be made "across the killing chain." The basic appetite for firearms - and alcohol - cannot be suppressed.

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