Instead of wasting time debating whether guns or people do the killing, we can agree that the recent mass murder sprees Obama talked about on Thursday were the works of crazy people. That’s not something Congress can do much about. No matter how much regulation we dream up, we can’t root out all the crazies or come up with explanations for their actions. That didn’t keep seething partisan anger out of the president’s remarks. Did he consider how little impact trying to regulate mass murder would have on the daily killings in his home town?
Mass murder by guns and drugs: people do what they want
The mass murder in Oregon wasn’t the only proof of how little impact our attempts to regulate some types of behavior can have. A rash of heroin overdoses were reported in Chicago over the past week,1 more evidence of the marginal impact years of trying to control drugs has had. Why? Because people like to abuse them almost as much as the government likes to try to stop them.
Guns and drugs have many things in common. They can save lives and they can commit mass murder. They are heavily regulated because of the dangers they pose. We hate to admit it, but we can’t control their use because of one nasty characteristic they share: human nature.
On the other hand, one thing we can control is how much revenue we generate from using drugs and guns.
Is there a little government duplicity going on here?
Government makes guns and drugs revenue generators
The president’s 2016 funding request for the National Drug Control Strategy is $27.6 billion, up from the $26.3 billion on the table for 2015.2 In 2014 the Firearms and Ammunition Excise Tax (FAET) brought in $768,927,000,3 a nearly 300% increase over the past decade:
FAET revenues continue to rise, with total collections up 8 percent compared to the prior year. Since TTB assumed the responsibility for administering the FAET in 2003, collections have increased 298 percent.4
The two other big excise tax moneymakers are alcohol and cigarettes, their combined haul of over $21 billion5 dwarfing the money made from guns and ammunition and begging the question of how much death and suffering these sin taxes represent.
Local governments get their cut from drugs and guns, too. For example, beginning in 2013 Cook County, Illinois instituted a firearm “violence tax” of $25.00 per gun purchase.6 You can bet that the street criminals selling drugs and doing the killing don’t worry about the tax very much.
Advocates of stepping up gun regulation to stem the violence in cities like Chicago shoot down their own arguments about the need for tighter controls. Illinois Senator Dick Durbin admitted that the perpetrators of most gun crimes are not the same people who purchase firearms:
According to a 2013 report by Third Way, there are roughly 500,000 gun crimes every year in the United States. In 9 of 10 gun crimes where the gun was successfully traced, the person who bought it was not the person who used it in the crime.7
So what does Cook County’s $25.00 per gun sale accomplish? It takes in revenue, pure and simple, while the shootings in Chicago’s violent neighborhoods continue.
Proposed legislation to crack down on gun dealers or to make it easier to trace firearms sounds good, but our attempts will fail because they can’t accomplish one thing: take the ingenuity out of the black market. The black market doesn’t care if its goods are responsible for mass murder. It is extraordinarily resilient when it comes to meeting the needs of its customers. It doesn’t matter whether the items for sale are drugs, guns, human beings, exotic animals, or counterfeit handbags. Where there is money and demand, that demand is going to be met and there isn’t a lot we can do about it. If there was, many of our problems could be legislated out of existence overnight.
That doesn’t mean the cash can’t flow.
Revenue and regulation are the goals?
Whether guns and drugs benefit government by bringing in revenue through taxes, fines and penalties, or by adding to federal, state, and local employment budgets for law enforcement, it would be a big loss to our bureaucracy if these problems went away. It doesn’t matter whether the use of guns and drugs is legal or illegal. There is big money to be made. The best example of all is marijuana, where we collect taxes in places where it is legal, levy fines where it is illegal, and pay for regulation and enforcement regardless of whether or not the law is being broken.
The same is true of guns. The president’s anger over senseless mass murder is understandable and we shouldn’t blame members of Congress for trying to do something about the problem. Don’t tell us that passing regulatory legislation is going to make a big difference, though. Like trying to control our drug problem, gun regulation will cost lots of money, add to the public sector workforce, and bring in more revenue, but it’s not going to stop wanton killing. If we took every gun off the street tomorrow, the next mass murder would be committed with something else, like the pressure cooker used in the Boston Marathon bombing. Like it or not, one thing we can’t regulate out of existence is the human element.