The black and white — but mainly gray — of gun control and drug prohibition, part 2

So … this is actually part two of a two-part series on race, gun control, and drug criminalization.

Last time I went into the motivation behind the series. The more proximate cause was a question posed in the discussion of my post on legalizing drugs.

The more remote—but more fundamental—was the unsettling sense I had upon reflecting on my feelings on the Newtown shooting.  The shooting upset me (as it did many, of course). But it upset me, too, to realize that I’m not that upset more or less continuously, because in fact young kids are being shot more or less continuously—not in elementary schools in communities like Newtown, but on street corners & playgrounds in cities like Chicago, Los Angeles and Detroit.

They are essentially part of the War on Drug’s “collateral damage.” And I guess in the same way we don’t worry overmuch about “collateral damage” in the form of deaths to civilians in our other wars, we don’t really get distracted by it here at home. . . .

However much progress one thinks can be made by laws restricting firearms, orders of magnitude more can be made by ending drug Prohibition, which like alcohol Prohibition combines opportunities for monopoly profits with the necessity for violent, extralegal enforcement of commercial obligations, creating a hyper-homicide cocktail potent enough to bend the historical curve of pacifism that is the signature of liberal markety societies.

There are some unconscious emotional dynamics at work here that ought to be exposed and critically examined. They include the partisan cultural meanings of recreational drugs that account for their being treated differently from alcohol.  They include, too, the predictably parochial nature of our empathic sensibilities, which lead us to attend selectively to forms of suffering and loss that are in fact universal in their nature and concentrated disproportionately on certain members of our society.

But as always, matters are complicated.

One of the complexities is the profound moral ambivalence that members of inner-city, largely minority communities themselves have toward drug criminalization.  That was the subject of the my last post, which described the powerful case that members of those communities often make for their entitlement to use the expressive power of the law as a countervailing force to oppose social influences—including commercial advertising of lawful products–that they believe unfairly diminish their power to instill in their children the dispositions, tastes, and habits that they (like all parents everywhere) perceive to be essential to their children’s’ prospects for living happy, flourishing lives.

Precisely because the impact of our policies on guns and drugs so profoundly and distinctively affect these communities, the power of their members to make law in a manner that relfects their judgments about the morally complicated, empirically uncertain issues involves necessarily goes straight to the core of their entitlement to enjoy meaningful self-government.

I don’t know what this element of the dilemma means for how political disputes over guns and over drugs should be resolved. If I said I did, I’d be contradicting myself (likely I already have in some place and in some way connected to this topic; only someone who doesn’t actually get the complexity involved will manage to get all the pieces to fit together in an analytically neat and tidy little pattern).  My point is just that this is an element of the dilemma that has to be taken into account; and for that reason, I want to take it into account by acknowledging that it complicates the argument I have been making about the mistaken overemphasis on regulating guns relative to deregulating drugs as a response to our Nation’s unacceptable gun-homicide rate. . . .

So, finally, some data (I’m sorry for going on; I should just accept that it is impossible ever to say enough and not keep trying).

It’s not a perfect measure of the ambivalence that the communities I’m describing feel, but what I’ve done, combining data from several CCP studies conducted over the last year, is break down attitudes on gun control and marijuana legalization by race.

The sample consists of about 2500 individuals drawn from a nationally representative on-line sample of individuals recruited to participate in CCP studies of one sort or another.  I wanted to cobble together several data sets in order to get enough African-American sample to enable reasonably precise estimates; African-Americans make up 11% of the sample overall.

Start with this:

It shows that African Americans and whites in the sample held comparable attitudes overall toward marijuana legalization—about 60% support, actually—but were divided sharply on gun control, with African Americans decidedly more supportive.

I’ve put Hispanics and Asians in, too, but realize that they (especially Asians) comprised an even smaller part of the sample, diminishing the precision of any estimate of the attitudes of these groups in the general population (the error bars are standard errors; double the interval, essentially, if you want 0.95 levels of confidence).  But we are on relatively solid ground for African Americans and whites.

Now to do a meaningful comparison of African American and whites, it is also useful to take account of ideology.  Support for gun control and for legalizing marijuana both are associated with being liberal (as that term is used in ordinary political discourse). African Americans are, on average, much more liberal than whites.  Can we see the racial difference, then, as reflecting the greater ideological diversity in the white population?

To answer that question, I think it is helpful to start by getting a sense of just how much more liberal African Americans are than whites.  Consider:

What I’ve done, essentially, is plot the distribution (with a kernel density estimate) of whites and African Americans respectively over a continuous measure of right-left political orientation formed by aggregating the subjects’ self-reported identification with the Democratic and Republican parties and their ideology on a “liberal-conservative” scale.

You can “see” how much more “liberal Democratic” African-Americans are. Whereas the mean score on the scale for whites puts them just shy of the middle of the “Liberal Democratic” scale, the mean for African-Americans is closer to +1 Standard Deviation toward “Liberal Democratic. Minus 1 SD in the distribution for African-Americans equates to being around the middle of the scale; minus 1 SD for whites is a little more than one SD toward “Conservative Republican.”

Basically, “normalizing” the scale for race, one would say that a “middle of the road” African American is as far right within his or her group as a “moderately conservative Republican” white is for his or hers.

Now consider this:

These are “fitted values” based on regression analyses (click on the thumbnail if you’d like to see them) that treat race, “liberal Democratic” political orientation, and the interaction of those two as predictors for support for gun control and support for marijuana legalization, respectively.  They tell you, in effect, how a progressively more “liberal Democratic” orientation influences positions on these issues for both groups.  I’ve started plotting the African-American line at the middle of the “liberal Democratic” scale because the proportion of African Americans more “conservative Republican” than that is so small—and it is visually misleading, I think, to include them if one is trying to assess how important ideology is in explaining the difference in white & African-American views on drugs & on guns.

What you can see, in effect, is that African Americans are more supportive of gun control, and less supportive of marijuana legalization, than whites of comparable political outlook.

The effect is most pronounced for marijuana legalization. There, political outlooks and race interact, signifying that the impact of becoming more liberal and Democratic on support for legalization is smaller for African Americans than for whites.  There is no similar interaction between political outlooks and race for gun control; in effect, African Americans are uniformly more pro-gun control than whites at any given point on the political outlook spectrum.

This was basically in line with what I expected. That is, based on what I know of the public opinion research, I expected African Americans to be more pro-gun control and less pro-legalization than whites, and in fact anticipated this effect would be more pronounced for marijuana legalization.

Still, I was surprised by the degree of support for legalization among African Americans generally.  The level of support is higher, I think, than it was in years past. And the differential between African Americans and whites—in relation to political outlooks–smaller than I expected.

I’ll have to ask Tracey Meares, who has studied this, whether I’m right in my recollection/expectation and what she thinks about these results (maybe I can even get her to offer her views on the blog!).

What does this add to the discussion of gun control and drug prohibition?


Information, too, that is only an imprecise indicator of what are in fact very very important differences in perspective, founded on differences in experience and cultural meaning, among citizens who need to deliberate on guns and drugs.

You should try to learn as much as they can about the sources of these differences, and about the judgments of fact and value that underlie them.  If you don’t do this, your positions on gun control and drug prohibition will not be well-considered, no matter what they are.

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