Marco Rubio’s case against gun control defies simple logic

Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-FL) argument against gun control is, essentially, the “too long; didn’t read” of policymaking: It’s too hard to properly enforce gun laws, so why even bother?

“If someone’s decided, ‘I’m going to commit this crime,’ they’ll find a way to get the gun to do it,” Rubio said on Thursday, a day after a shooter killed at least 17 people in a high school in the state that Rubio represents. “That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a law that makes it harder. It just means, understand, to be honest, it isn’t going to stop this from happening.”

Rubio explained that if you ban certain types of guns (like the AR-15), people will still be able to find older versions of it since so many of those guns are already out there. He also claimed that if you impose harsher background checks, chances are a lot of people would pass, erroneously or not, the check anyway. And if they don’t pass a background check, they’d find another way to get a gun.

“They could go buy them the way MS-13 does and other gangs and other street elements do: from the black market,” Rubio claimed.

In short, Rubio said imposing new restrictions on guns would be ineffective.

As Matt Yglesias pointed out, this is basically an argument against having any laws at all. Just imagine Rubio applying this same logic to other policies: People are going to commit murder anyway, so why bother banning it? People are going to use drugs anyway, so why bother making them illegal?

What Rubio’s argument misses is that what he described is an effective policy intervention. As he put it, people who can’t buy a gun legally or can’t pass a background check will have to go to the gray or black market. But that actually is a deterrent for a lot of people — enough of one that, based on the research, it could prevent some deaths.

Laws don’t have to be perfect to be effective

The process Rubio described involves going out of your way to find someone who will sell a gun illegally — which is simply more difficult than looking up your local gun store or licensed dealer. And these guns are going to be more expensive; since they involve smuggling and the risk of getting caught, illegal guns are costlier — a few hundred or even thousands of dollars more, depending on the place and type of firearm — than legally purchased ones.

All of this makes the guns less accessible. And while it’s hard to measure empirically, that means fewer people — some of whom could go on to commit horrific atrocities — would be able to obtain these weapons.

The research backs this up: A 2016 review of 130 studies in 10 countries, published in Epidemiologic Reviews, found that new legal restrictions on owning and purchasing guns tended to be followed by a drop in gun violence — a strong indicator that restricting access to guns can save lives.

In Australia, for example, the gun homicide rate and gun suicide rate plummeted by 42 and 57 percent, respectively, in the seven years after the country enacted new firearm restrictions, which included a ban on certain weapons and a buyback program.

We apply the logic behind gun restrictions to other laws all the time

Rubio has to understand this logic to some extent, because this is the exact same rationale for a war on drugs that he supports.

Rubio is on the record supporting tougher drug laws, previously writing that “when we consider changing the sentences we impose for drug laws, we must be mindful of the great successes we have had in restoring law and order to America’s cities since the 1980s drug epidemic destroyed lives, families, and entire neighborhoods. I personally believe that legalizing drugs would be a great mistake and that any reductions in sentences for drug crimes should be made with great care.”

The argument for prohibiting certain drugs, from marijuana to heroin, is not that it will stop the use of all drugs. The argument, instead, is that prohibition will make these drugs more expensive — a 2014 study by Jon Caulkins, a drug policy expert at Carnegie Mellon University, suggested that prohibition multiplies the price of hard drugs like cocaine by as much as 10 times. It also makes these drugs require the extra work of finding an illicit dealer instead of simply going to your local CVS to buy some heroin. That will not stop everyone from obtaining drugs, but it will deter some people.

It is perplexing that in conservative criminal justice politics, people like Rubio — those who support the war on drugs — don’t apply the same logic to guns that they do to drugs.

The flipside is also true: It may be contradictory that some people who support legalizing drugs still support banning or restricting guns. But there’s a persuasive argument that the logic behind prohibition actually applies much better to guns than drugs since drugs, by comparison, are so easy to produce and smuggle. As drug historian Isaac Campos previously told me, “How much easier is it to move two kilos of cocaine, which are worth $50,000 or so, across the US border than it is to move $50,000 worth of assault rifles?”

The logic behind gun restrictions and drug prohibition is generally true for other laws. Some people will commit murder, theft, or other crimes even if they’re all prohibited, but there will be extra costs involved — the threat of incarceration, a criminal record, public humiliation, and so on — that likely deter others. That extra cost is at the core of the criminal justice system’s effectiveness.

Maybe Rubio understands all of this and believes gun control isn’t worth doing anyway, because it would still run afoul of his interpretation of the Second Amendment, or, in his view, the cost-benefit analysis still leans against these policies.

But that’s a very different argument than one that claims that these policies are entirely ineffective. The claim doesn’t match the logic that Rubio applies to other policy issues, and it’s disproved by the empirical research on gun control.

For more on America’s gun problem, read Vox’s explainer.

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