The black and white — but mainly gray — of gun control and drug prohibition, part 1

This is part one of a two-part series on race, gun control, and drug criminalization.

The motivation for the series grows out of discussion relating to my post on legalizing drugs (I’m simplifying; really, something like this) as a means of reducing the gun-homicide rate in the U.S.

A question was posed in the discussion about what African-American public opinion is on drugs and guns.  I’ve culled some data on that from past CCP studies.  I’ll present these data in the next post. In this one, I want to lay out some more background. . . .

One of the reasons I made the drug-legalization proposal was my sense of discomfort with the post-Newtown framing of the gun-homicide crisis in our country. There are (literally) orders of magnitude more children (adults too) being shot & killed in inner-city neighborhoods in cities like Chicago than are being shot & killed in mass shootings by mentally ill people. It’s unclear how effective gun control—of any sort—would be in reducing gun homicides of any type.  But it’s clear that a very large fraction of U.S. gun homicides (leaving out suicide, which accounts for more than half of U.S. gun deaths) are associated with the lethal violence incident to the black market status of recreational drugs like marijuana and cocaine.

Why the hell aren’t we talking about this? Why haven’t we been for years already, given the steady, relentless toll in death (not to mention ruined lives, wasted dollars, etc.) associated with our completely dysfunctional, idiotic drug-law regime?

Well, actually, some people do talk about our drugs laws—and in particular whether their should be legalization—quite a lot. Many of them live in the very areas where drug-related, including drug-law-related, violence is the highest.  And they aren’t—or certainly aren’t all—persuded that drug legalization is the way to go.

My brilliant colleague Tracey Meares first educated me on these issues back when we were both assistant professors (we had to clean the chalk boards after Richard Epstein’s & Cass Sunstein’s lectures; sometimes this kid from the neighborhood, Barack Obama, would help too) at the University of Chicago Law School.

She told me, and showed me with both research and with vivid examples from the neighborhoods right around us, that there was a profound ambivalence about drug criminalization in inner-city, largely African American communities in the South Side of Chicago.

There was no ambivalence about the existing drug-law enforcement posture of both the state and federal governments: everyone recognized that basically disposing of the lives of people involved in the drug trade by just tossing them in jail for huge amounts of time was idiotic, as well as indescribably cruel both to them and their communities.

But it wasn’t at all the case that the citizens who were most adversely affected by this dumb policy all thought that drugs should be legal. On the contrary, most of them were deeply opposed to legalization on moral grounds. Moral not primarily in the illiberal sense of wanting to tell other adult people how to live their lives, but moral in the sense of wanting the same fair opportunity that all adults are entitled to have to mould the characters of their children, instilling in them the outlooks and dispositions and habits most conducive to their happiness and flourishing.

All parents compete in that shaping process, of course, with myriad other influences.  These include commercial, market-driven ones that try to conjure demand for useless or even pernicious products by inventing fanciful stories about the glamorous or virtuous ways of life they conduce to (think, as you might have been recently, about hideous  “man cards”; but think, too, of Virginia Slim, etc.).

arents in the communities in the inner-city in the South Side of Chicago (at least in the early to mid-1990s, when I lived there) resented these forces, like all parents do. They hated the companies that plastered their communities with billboards and other forms of advertising targeted (they correctly perceived) at creating in their children a taste—emotional and physical—for products like “malt liquor” and cigarettes.

They worried that if recreational drugs were made legal, manufacturers of those products would join the ranks of commercial firms poisoning the moral environment in which they were raising their children.

The way they—or many of them; reasonable, reasoning citizens inevitably have differences of views on complex matters—tried to reconcile their support for drug criminalization with their opposition to the existing regime of drug-law-enforcement was by trying to reform the former. Organizing through the processes associated with the City’s innovative community policy program, they advocated things like “gang loitering” laws as alternatives to draconian criminal sentences.

I wasn’t sure that I agreed with all the positions members of these communities took on all these issues, particularly on the criminalziation of drugs (the gang-loitering law, in context, did seem quite sensible to  me).

But one thing I did become convinced of was that they were better situated, in every relevant sense, to figure out how these various issues should be resolved in their lives than I was.  They hadn’t necessarily read the latest issue of the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology but by seeking out information from people they trust, and employing their informed sense of who knows what about what, they had arrived –by the same means we all do, in all areas of our lives—at perfectly justifiable grounds for making complicated decisions.

Moreover, they were the ones whose lives those decisions, no matter who made them, were going to most meaningfully affect. They were the ones bearing all the relevant costs—in the form of the impact that whatever regime of laws and enforcement strategy would be adopted would have on their sons and daughters, their brothers and sisters, and nephews and nieces, and close friends and neighbors.

There’s no way to honor the dignity that reasoning people are due under these circumstances other than to respect their right to govern themselves.

… What were we talking about again?  Oh, drug laws and guns.

Another thing that people in these communities believed, very strongly, was that there should be significant regulation of guns.  Two weeks ago, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit told them that’s not an area in which they are entitled to govern themselves: relying on the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent Second Amendment decisions (including one, also involving Chicago, that reached the by-no-means obvious determination that the Second Amendment limits the power of state governments, and not merely that of the federal one) struck down an Illinois law that prohibits carrying a concealed handgun in public without a permit issued for “cause.”

I’m very doubtful that “tough gun laws”—which like prohibition of alcohol and drugs create black markets and the forms of violence that inevitably attend them—will contribute much to solving the problem of violent homicide in our country.  But I don’t have any doubt that people in places like Chicago have a right to figure that out for themselves.

Okay. . . Next time: some data.

Braman, D. Doing time on the outside : incarceration and family life in urban America. (University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor; 2004).

Fung, A. Empowered participation : reinventing urban democracy. (Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J.; 2004).

Kahan, D.M. & Meares, T.L. The Coming Crisis of Criminal Procedure. Geo. L.J. 86, 1153 (1998).

Meares, T.L. It’s a Question of Connections. Val. U. L. Rev. 579 31, 579 (1997).

Meares, T.L. Social Organization and Drug Law Enforcement. Am. Crim. L. Rev. 35, 191 (1998).

Meares, T.L. & Kahan, D.M. Urgent times : policing and rights in inner-city communities. (Beacon Press, Boston; 1999).

Skogan, W.G. Police and community in Chicago : a tale of three cities. (Oxford University Press, Oxford ; New York; 2006).

Skogan, W.G. & Hartnett, S.M. Community Policing Chicago Style. (1997).

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