Don’t just stand there, do something! (Provided there’s something useful to do.)

Of course my brilliant old friend and longtime UCLA colleague Eugene Volokh is right (and Jeb Bush was also right, though tin-eared and hard-hearted).  The impulse do “do something” in the face of a bad situation, and especially after a disaster, can lead to policies that make things worse instead of better (for example, invading Iraq), and it is wiser to resist that impulse than to do something foolish. The “Yes, Minister” syllogism – “We must do something; this is something; therefore we must do this” – is not a form of reasoning that leads to good results.

That’s especially true for gun policy, because the debate heats up after a mass shooting, and mass shootings are completely atypical of gun deaths overall. The question “What would have prevented this particular disaster?” is inevitably the wrong question.

And Eugene is also right – being right in the service of really bad policy choices is one of his annoying habits – to compare guns to alcohol as two commodities whose consumption in the United States leads to the deaths of tens of thousands of people other than consumers, in addition to deaths among the consumers themselves.

But that’s where Eugene stops being right and becomes ridiculously and disastrously wrong. He assumes, falsely, that just because we’re not currently doing much to stop the violence involving guns and alcohol it must be the case that nothing useful can be done.  In the case of guns, the cross-national statistics offer a strong hint that there’s something very wrong with policy in the United States, since no other developed country has anything like our rate of gun deaths. Our rate is three times that of Finland or Switzerland – our closest competitors among developed nations – four times that of Canada, and ten times that of Australia. That suggests we might have something to learn from their policies.

John Donohue’s recent work showing that adopting a “shall-issue” concealed-carry law correlates with future increases in homicide rates  suggests that state-level gun policies matter, though it’s hard to tell whether the results are due specifically “shall-issue” as opposed to “stand-your-ground” and other elements of the NRA policy agenda; states that loosen their gun laws are likely to do so along more than one dimension.  But even if there’s nothing positive to do, reining in the desire of Eugene’s gun-crazed allies to increase the prevalence of gun ownership and gun-carrying would be a good place to start.

One obvious positive thing to do about guns would be to tighten the rules about background checks. Right now, registered gun dealers (Federal Firearms Licensees, or FFLs) must verify that gun buyers are eligible to purchase; that’s the Brady Law background check. But about a third of all gun transfers don’t involve an FFL: they’re private sales, including sales at gun shows, or they’re gifts.

There’s no good reason not to require a check for every transfer; no doubt the gun stores would be happy to provide the service at a competitive price.  That simple change, supported by the vast majority of voters and proposed by the Obama Administration, fits perfectly the NRA slogan that what we need is better enforcement of the laws already on the books. But in fact the NRA opposes it, and if Eugene supports it he’s keeping that support a secret.  No one can estimate how many lives it would save, but surely that number isn’t zero.

If Eugene wants to say – as apparently Jeb wants to say – that protecting the convenience of gun owners and gun merchants is more important than saving lives, that’s his right. But to say that there are no lives to be saved,  at reasonable cost to other goals, is simply false.

That’s even more obviously true with respect to Eugene’s comparison case, alcohol. He writes as if the only alternative to our current insanely loose alcohol policies would be a return to Prohibition, and that what we can do  about controlling alcohol-related deaths is “not much, other than trying to catch and punish alcohol abuse.”

Nonsense. There are at least two options out there that would substantially reduce the number of people who die as a result of other people’s drinking (while also reducing the number who die, suddenly or slowly, as a result of their own drinking).

The first and most obvious (except to a libertarian) is raising alcohol taxes. When something costs more, people use less of it, especially people who use enough of it so its price matters in their personal budgets. Most of the damage from alcohol-related violence comes from heavy drinkers, not casual ones.  So higher alcohol prices will lead to less drinking by heavy drinkers and therefore fewer drunk-driving deaths and fewer drunken homicides.

Philip J. Cook’s Paying the Tab estimates that a 10% increase in the price of drink (which could be achieved by doubling the current federal alcohol tax) would reduce all violent crime – not just alcohol-related crime, but of course including a lot of gun crime – by about 3%.  The effects on traffic fatalities are of about the same magnitude. The effects seem to be roughly linear.

So tripling the alcohol tax – which would cost the median drinker less than 20 cents a day, and which wouldn’t be nearly high enough to create a black market – would eliminate about 6% of the 13,000 murders we suffer each year, saving about 800 lives. It would also eliminate about the same proportion of 32,000 traffic fatalities, saving something more than 2000 additional lives.  In other words, a simple change in the tax code could eliminate about one 9/11′s worth of sudden death per year.

The other straightforward approach to shrinking alcohol-related damage, including homicide, is to deter drinking by people who commit crimes under the influence. That’s the approach of South Dakota’s Sobriety 24/7, which requires people with prior DUI convictions arrested for a fresh DUI to come in twice a day for an alcohol-breath test, under the threat of a night in jail if the result isn’t 0.0.

The results are spectacular: being on the program (for an average of 90 days) reduces DUI recidivism by 50% over the next two years. Applying the program at a county level reduces auto fatalities by 12% and domestic-violence complaints by 9%. (Beau Kilmer and his colleagues at RAND are about to publish an estimate of the effect on all-cause mortality that will blow the top off everybody’s head, but that work is still under review so I can’t more than hint at the results.)

Here’s a more speculative idea, but one I’d like to see tried. A third activity that leads to lots of sudden deaths on the part of bystanders is driving. One thing we do to reduce the carnage is to forbid people to drive if they’re under the influence. Alcohol effects coordination, but it also influences anger management, impulse control, and judgment. So why do we let someome walk around armed when he’s drunk out of his gourd? The old-fashioned Western saloon had a “hang ‘em here” policy; customers were expected to disarm before getting loaded. Why not enact that as law, requiring that anyone possessing a gun in public either (1) remain sober or (2) lock it and unload it? You could think of that as either a modification of gun policy or a modification of alcohol policy.

So Eugene’s comparison case is almost uniquely poorly chosen. There are some things we could do today to reduce gun violence by changing gun policy, but those effects would mostly happen slowly and can’t be estimated with much confidence.  But there are things we could do about alcohol policy today that would reduce violent death, including violent death by firearm, predictably and measurably six months from now.

Yes, the activist impulse to “do something” can and does lead us astray. But so does the libertarian impulse to just sit there and watch people die, all in the name of limited government.











Those who fail to study history …

John Buntin at Governing looks to the development of alcohol policy after Prohibition for cautionary lessons about the future of the legal commercial cannabis industry, and some alternatives to that future. It’s the kind of solid, thoughtful reporting that is Buntin’s hallmark, and well worth a read.


America’s most criminogenic drug

Which intoxicating substance is associated with the most lethal violence? Devotees of the Wire might presume that cocaine or maybe heroin would top the list.

Of course the correct answer, by far, is alcohol. It’s involved in more homicides than pretty much every other substance, combined. Surveys of people incarcerated for violent crimes indicate that about 40% had been drinking at the time they committed these offenses. Among those who had been drinking, average blood-alcohol levels were estimated to exceed three times the legal limit.

Aside from its role among perpetrators of violence, alcohol use is widespread among victims, too, for some of the same reasons. Recent data from the Illinois Violent Death Reporting System (IVDRS) bear out these trends. At my request, researchers at the Stanley Manne Children’s Research Institute analyzed 3,016 homicides occurring in five Illinois counties between 2005 and 2009. I find the below figures quite striking, particularly among young people. More here


Alcohol as a panacea

Everyone “knows” that two glasses of red wine a day are good for your health. But, as Will Rogers said, it’s not what you don’t know that hurts you: it’s what you know that ain’t so. A paper by Hans Olav Fekjær and commentaries by Jurgen Rehm and Sven Andréasson, all in the latest issue of Addiction, review the evidence.

Yes, moderate drinkers have better health, on many dimensions, than non-drinkers and heavy drinkers. That’s the problem: too many dimensions, with too little biological mechanism. The logical thought is that people who drink in moderation probably have, on average, better health habits in other respects than those who don’t drink at all, since by definition they’ve avoided taking their alcohol use to excess while the abstainers either haven’t run that risk or have found that they can’t drink just a little. It’s also the case that, in Western cultures, drinking is normal while non-drinking is somewhat deviant. The fact that in India, where drinking isn’t a social norm, drinking isn’t associated with better cardiovascular health seems to me to seriously weaken the case for a causal connection in other societies.

Why the “Moderate drinking is good for what ails ya” theory has found such ready acceptance, while a comparable finding about moderate cannabis use and academic performance was ignored, is left as an exercise for the reader.

Logic and the marijuana war

A pro-pot group rented video-billboard space outside the Indianapolis Speedway for the weekend of a NASCAR event to run a video with the following voicetrack:

If you’re an adult who enjoys a good beer, there’s a similar product you might want to know about – one without all the calories and serious health problems, less toxic so it doesn’t cause hangovers or overdose deaths, and it’s not linked to violence or reckless behavior.

Marijuana: less harmful than alcohol and time to treat it that way.

A group that calls itself “anti-drug” objected.

This campaign falsely claims marijuana is safer than alcohol and promotes illicit drug use in a state where marijuana is illegal.

The billboard company chickened out, either out of cowardice or because it didn’t want to offend its beer-company advertisers.

The New York Daily News repeats as fact the claim that the objecting organization is “anti-drug.” “Anti-truth” would be closer to the mark.

The logical negation of “Marijuana is safer than alcohol” would be “Alcohol is no more dangerous than marijuana.” How could anyone concerned about drug abuse make such a recklessly false claim promoting use of the intoxicant that kills, injures, and addicts more people than all the illicit drugs combined? “Less harmful than alcohol” is a low bar, but cannabis clears it easily.

Cannabis and alcohol (reprise)

David Frum and I agree that “But something else is even worse than X!” is not a good reason to ignore the X problem: autos kill more people than guns, but we should still try to reduce the number of people killed with guns. And the fact that alcohol is a much nastier drug than cannabis, both physiologically and behaviorally, doesn’t make cannabis abuse either rare or benign.

But Point #13 in the post Frum links to wasn’t about the comparison between cannabis and alcohol; it was about the causal connection between cannabis policy and alcohol abuse. As Frum notes, alcohol use and cannabis use are now positively correlated. But that doesn’t tell you anything conclusive about whether making cannabis legally available would increase or decrease heavy drinking.

In my view, an increase of as little as 10% in heavy drinking would wipe out any benefits from cannabis legalization, including the benefit in the form of fewer arrests because of the additional crime that would go along with the additional heavy drinking. Frum is aware of that possibility.

But he ignores the opposite possibility, equally plausible in terms of both logic and evidence. Continue Reading…

The Boris Johnson Achievement That The Economist Will Not Mention

The Economist handicaps the coming London mayoral race, noting correctly that Boris Johnson currently leads Ken Livingstone in the polls but by no means has things sewn up. But the newspaper’s house politics skew the coverage badly as the article uses this gem of circumlocution to limn Johnson’s achievements as mayor:

Crime has continued to fall and minor improvements have been made to public transport, including a cycle-hire scheme and the end of the hated “bendy” bus.

As much as it may grate on them, the Economist should have acknowledged a key reason why crime is down and public transport quality is up under Johnson: He prohibited drinking on trains and buses. This was a political risk that did not endear him to libertarians. Indeed, some of the opposition went so far as to have a protest/party the night before the ban went into effect. The resulting alcohol-fueled violence and destruction was a vindication for Mayor Johnson.

The amazing drop in crime in New York City started with a change in how low-level antisocial/criminal behavior in the subways was policed. As has happened in London, crime first started to drop in what became a widely used zone of civility. Johnson clearly learned from the New York experience and London has benefited both in terms of fewer assaults on public transport riders and staff and in a greater sense of safety among those who rely on buses and the tube.

The Economist opposes prohibitions on psychoactive substances on principle, but that shouldn’t stop them from admitting when a well-reasoned ban has proved a success. Londoners know better: Three years on, a remarkable 87% of them support the policy.

Concerning replication

I’m in London for meetings on criminal justice organized by the Centre for Justice Innovation (the UK arm of the Center for Court Innovation) and Policy Exchange. A small meeting that ran for two hours today tried to figure out whether the coerced-sobriety approach of the South Dakota 24/7 project (the alcohol version of HOPE) could be used in Scotland, with social problems, customs, and institutional arrangements quite unlike South Dakota’s. (In particular, Scotland has no such thing as a two-day term of confinement.)

The answer seems to be that you could try to do something based on similar principles and with similar aims, but you couldn’t really do the program in its trademark style, and even if you’re convinced 24/7 works on drunk drivers in Sioux Falls you can’t be sure that the alternative version would work on drunken wife-beaters in Glasgow.

That suggests a more general reflection. Heraclitus said that no one can step twice into the same river. By the same token, it isn’t really possible to do the same program in two different places.