I drink. I like to drink. I do it for a lot of reasons and I'm glad I have the right to do it. (The right to drink was actually never taken away from the public, but we'll get to that in a minute.)
I also grew up in a family in which some people abused alcohol. Most of the details of that, I'll refrain from making your business, as they involve folks who haven't consented to be written about here. The point is, I am under no illusion that drinking is only a personal and private choice. And not just in cases where people drink and get behind the wheels of cars, beat or sexually assault their parnters or children or die too young of cirhhosis of the liver because they drank too much: the subtler effects of drinking on human behavior affect the drinker's work and relationships, and these can ripple outward. Anyone who's ever lost a job due to a single, unproductive, hungover morning, or had a friendship go south after one boozy night, knows what I'm talking about. (I broke my foot earlier this year in a bike accident after riding home with a couple of cocktails in my system. It cost me the part-time job I was using to supplement freelance work, and that affected my finances, and my financial status has affected my relationships with my friends. Heck, so has my reduced mobility, an ongoing thing I am still getting used to. So, drunks – and users of other intoxicants – can we agree that "I'm only hurting myself" is not necessarily the right way of talking about these things?)
Some of the negative effects of drinking – particularly the subtle ones – are, I think, best managed in privacy. Break a wine glass? Sweep it up, go to Ikea or the thrift store and get some more. Find out you're pregnant following a boozy one-night stand? Do what you think is best. From that perspective I've been sympathetic to the NRA's rhetoric about responsible, educated gun ownership. I think there is such a thing; I really do. Just as I think there is such a thing as responsible, educated alcohol consumption.
And I think if gun-owning hobbyists are serious about protecting their right to access the tools of their avocation, they can take a few lessons from alcohol policy, both in history and current practice.
"Prohibitions don't work" is both true and a massive oversimplification of history.
While people who want to, and have the means, will always defy the law, the argument that Prohibition failed because of human nature isn't really consistent with what the historical data tell us: public health records indicate that fewer people died of acute alcohol overdose and alcohol-related conditions both during Prohibition and after, and the survey data that we have suggests that, while many people flouted the law, many people didn't care about alcohol enough to try making it or spend the money to procure illegal hooch.
This was partly because the Volstead Act was badly written: the law made it illegal to sell hooch, but not to buy or drink it. It didn't set aside funds for enforcement. I'm glad Prohibition failed. (Am I ever.) But I don't think its failure was inevitable. Is it likely that some people will continue to purchase and trade in guns if stricter gun control laws are enforced? Almost certainly. But it does not stand to reason that well-written and reasonably enforced firearms legislation will inevitably result in an expanded underground gun trade.
Regulation is not Prohibition. In fact, regulation is the opposite of Prohibition. The final nail in Prohibition's coffin was the Great Depression. People were still drinking; farmers needed a market for their crops; the federal government needed the tax revenue. Alcohol had been subject to special taxes since the founding of the Republic, and not cashing in on that began to look unconscionable. Legalizing, taxing an regulating alcohol turned out to be better for the industry and for the public than making sales illegal. Many states still have ridiculous, dated liquor laws on the books; my state prohibits the sale of alcohol on the site where it's made, but it's totally legal for vintners, brewers and distillers to sell their wares onsite provided they first ship it away, then back to themselves. It's a vestigial law that was probably written with illegal brewers and moonshiners in mind, but now it just creates another loophole for legitimate businesses. But I get that the industry needs to be regulated. So does the industry. Instead of claiming that all regulations and restrictions on alcohol sales and consumption are a step towards Prohibition – and engaging in vocal opposition to the same – alcohol manufacturers and others have asked for a seat at the table.
- Be honest. Anyone – drunk, industry rep or PR flak – who told me alcohol was, in all cases, harmless, would get laughed out of the room. Anyone who told me, drunk or sober, that there's no difference between having two glasses of wine with Sunday dinner, and downing a whole bottle of vodka every morning before work, would be met with similar incredulity. The majority of gun owners I know don't believe the NRA speaks for them, but over the past few days I've seen gun hobbyists make claims similar to these: that there's no difference between wanting to own an assault rifle and wanting to own an antique pistol or a switchblade, and that therefore we should take a hands-off policy toward regulating any weapons.
If in policy and culture, we can recognize that not all uses of alcohol are equivalent, that alcohol itself is neither inherently benign nor inherently dangerous, and that it's possible to prevent unnecessary deaths by regulating booze sensibly, we can apply the same concept to our thinking about firearms. People who like guns, who participate in hobbies that have guns, should demand to be part of a conversation that honestly examines which regulations are likely to have a helpful effect on public health and safety, and which are more likely to cause more problems than they solve.
Previously: Gender Behind the Bar