(Reuters Photo/John Gress)
Two weeks after President Obama announced his plan to reduce gun violence—and a month and a half after the horrible tragedy that inspired it—the latest headline about Obama and guns centers on his own relationship with them. In a recent interview with The New Republic, the president expressed “profound respect” for hunting and even offered that he goes “skeet shooting all the time”—a revelation that was widely reported and said to raise “questions” and “eyebrows” by the likes of CNN. But more important than the president’s personal views on hunters or how often he shoots at clay disks is the question of what effects his policies will have if implemented.
Many Americans are heartened by President Obama’s commitment to gun control and are understandably eager to see him do something sane and rational about guns. But Obama, Vice President Biden, and other champions of the War on Guns have valuable lessons to learn from another battle: the War on Drugs. Criminal lawmaking is especially susceptible to good intentions with dangerous and unintended consequences. When we seek to solve social problems we have a responsibility to make sure our chosen solution actually works.
The career of Vice President Biden, who was charged to lead the president’s gun control initiative—is a useful example of the pitfalls of liberal good intentions. In the midst of the national panic over the crack wave of the 1980s, he co-sponsored the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which, notoriously, created punishments for crack cocaine 100 times harsher than those for powder cocaine. (As the Heritage Foundation notes, Biden pushed for this ratio despite a saner view from, of all places, the Reagan administration.) The disproportionate racial impact is well known, and it would take decades before the Obama administration, with the Fair Sentencing Act, addressed the disparity.
Over time, heated fear has given way to cold facts and the country has had to face a hard truth. We have spent $1 trillion dollars to incarcerate more of our people than any other country, yet we are no closer to solving our drug problem. These laws did not reduce drug abuse or drug trafficking, and they engrained racial inequality into the justice system. The crack “epidemic” is long gone, but the war on drugs wages on in the lives of millions of incarcerated young African-American men.
The United States fell on its face in its war on drugs because it let an animalistic reaction to fear take over policymaking. It abandoned facts and science. Though Newtown has traumatized us all, we should think through the consequences of proposals before acting. Gun laws passed today to stop tomorrow’s suburban school shooter may well end up incarcerating more generations of young inner-city black men.