The victims would be alive today -- or so we’re told. But would they be? The same question must be asked of subsequent shootings as well, but the the Roof case is particularly interesting because of its racial motivation.
It’s wrong to think that if someone cannot buy a firearm at a gun shop he cannot get one at all. Guns are purchased on the black and gray markets every day; and others are stolen from lawful owners. Someone who intends to commit murder is unlikely to be deterred by legal barriers to gun acquisition. The only people likely to be deterred are law-abiding people, those who have no intention of committing murder. Keeping guns out of their hands saves no innocent lives, but it may cost the life of a person who needs a gun in a hurry for self-defense, say, a woman who is threatened by an abusive husband or boyfriend.
Imagine that such a woman was kept from buying a gun because the FBI was investigating her arrest a month earlier for misdemeanor drug possession. Imagine further that in the meantime she was murdered by her husband or boyfriend. Would the advocates of gun control apologize because their policies facilitated that potentially preventable murder?
Gun controllers have never faced up to this flaw in their scheme. As noted, barriers to gun ownership don’t stop murderers from getting guns -- why would killers hesitate to break gun laws? The controls only impede innocent victims. Does anyone think Dylann Roof would have given up his dream of a race war because he was turned down for a gun at a shop? And what about the more recent shooters?
Notice the intersection of gun control and the war on drugs in the Roof case. Ironically, many champions of gun rights have no problem with drug prohibition. But the war on drugs bolsters the war on guns. The lucrative but dangerous black market in drugs, a product of prohibition, makes guns a salient feature of the illegal drug trade. Drug gangs are often described as having more powerful arsenals than the police. That, in turn, gives law-enforcement agencies a reason to crack down on guns. The infamous stop-and-frisk policy in New York City was directed at the possession of both drugs and guns.
As the late Thomas Szasz, the trenchant critic of what he called the “therapeutic state,” long explained, government drug prohibition violates our rights and would have appalled Americans less than one hundred years ago. Roof was arrested for possession of Suboxone without a prescription. Yet there was a time when Americans, who once were treated like adults, did not need what amounts to the government’s permission to buy drugs. (Doctors have long been deputized as agents of the state.)
Moreover, that someone could be denied a gun because he possessed a drug the government listed on a schedule of “controlled substances” would have been scandalous to earlier generations. They might have asked sardonically if imbibing alcohol occasionally should disqualify one from owning a firearm.
To put it bluntly, even someone who uses drugs might need the best method of self-defense we know. This would not mean that being under the influence of a drug would be an excuse for using a gun aggressively, just as being under the influence of alcohol is no excuse. The presumption would be that persons have rights, including the right to self-defense. In a free society no one could properly interfere until someone actually began to commit an act of aggression.
The upshot is that ending the so-called war on drugs (it's really a war on persons) would also take away one motivation for the anti-gun crusade. The two are related.
Finally, note the double irony in using the Charleston atrocity to push for gun control. First, America’s original gun laws were intended to keep guns out of the hands of black people once former slaves were were recognized as citizens of the United States. Second, as Charles Cobb documents in his book That Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed, many civil-rights activists carried guns to protect themselves from violent white supremacists, and to a large extent they succeeded. (See Thaddeus Russell's review of Cobb's book. Also see Andrew Kirell's "Pistol-Packing Preacher Shows Changing Black Attitudes on Gun Control" and Adam Winkler's "The Secret History of Guns.")
Sheldon Richman keeps the blog Free Association and is a senior fellow and chair of the trustees of the Center for a Stateless Society. Become a patron today!
(This was posted at Western Journalism.)