In recent weeks, the United States has witnessed two parallel narratives unfolding over the contest between freedom and regulation in American society.
Prohibition-era press conference. Source: National Archives
On November 6, two states–Washington and Colorado–passed voter referendums decriminalizing recreational marijuana use in the face of federal policy that dictates otherwise. And on December 14, a young man walked into a Connecticut elementary school and killed 26 individuals with an AR-15 semi-automatic assault rifle.
On their face, these two stories are unrelated, but for their connection to questions about the application of the Bill of Rights.
But in hindsight, the issues of guns, drugs, and alcohol have been linked together since Prohibition.
Advocates for the legalization of marijuana cite the 10th Amendment as evidence of the federal government’s lack of authority to enforce nationwide criminal prohibition of the drug.
Meanwhile, those decrying federal gun control legislation point to the Second Amendment to support a constitutional right to bear arms.
In the wake of Tucson, Aurora, and Newtown, it is impossible not to think about the issue of gun violence within the context of large-scale tragedy. Throughout the 20th century, however, the debate over gun control has been marked not only by these mass shootings, but by the relationship between controlled substances and the violent industries that surround them.
Over the past 80 years, the nation has experienced a sustained link between the regulation of weapons and the regulation of alcohol and drugs.
In 1919, the passage of the 18th Amendment ushered the nation into the era of Prohibition. The restrictions on the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcohol had a marked affect on criminal activity. With the advent of bootlegging, organized crime spread outside of the nation’s ethnic enclaves and became a dominant economic force in urban centers across the country.
As underground profit margins surged, gang rivalries emerged, and criminal activity mounted. The homicide rate across the nation rose 78 percent during Prohibition. In Chicago alone, there were more than 400 gang-related murders a year. According to scholar Edward Sullivan, writing in 1929, Prohibition resulted in “the greatest crime record ever attained by a nation.”
In 1933, the legislature passed the 21st Amendment, effectively bringing an end to Prohibition; in its aftermath, the government passed the National Firearms Act of 1934, the first federal regulation on guns in U.S. history. With the epidemic of alcohol-related violence and the sensationalized run of such criminals as John Dillinger, Al Capone, and Bonnie and Clyde, American lawmakers saw a pressing need to regulate the spread of weapons into the general population.
The law, which levied sharp regulations and high taxes on gun sales, focused on weapons generally associated with gangster violence: “A shotgun or rifle having a barrel of less than eighteen inches in length, or any other weapon, except a pistol or revolver, from which a shot is discharged by an explosive if such weapon is capable of being concealed on the person, or a machine gun.”
In response to the law’s passage, the National Rifle Association (NRA) formed its legislative affairs division, what would become the organization’s powerful lobbying arm.
Nearly 50 years later, in 1982, Ronald Reagan ushered in his famous “war on drugs.” The federal government embarked on a massive anti-drug campaign, with strict regulations and harsh penalties. Between 1980 and 1984, funding for FBI anti-drug initiatives ballooned from $8 million to $95 million.
In the years that followed, new technologies, political and military alliances, and immigration patterns coalesced to create a rapidly expanding drug trade in the United States, particularly in the nation’s inner-city communities, where deindustrialization resulted in rampant unemployment.
By 1987, the rate of industrial employment among black workers had dropped to 20 percent, down from roughly 70 percent as late as 1970. With few opportunities for legal employment, an underground drug economy blossomed.
And just as Prohibition created the space for organized crime to grow in the 1920s, the war on drugs bred gun-related violence throughout the nation.
According to scholar Michelle Alexander, “crack hit the streets in 1985… leading to a spike in violence as drug markets struggled to stabilize, and the anger and frustration associated with joblessness boiled.” As scholar David Kennedy writes, “[c]rack blew through America’s poor black neighborhoods like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”
Once again, as violence surged, questions of gun regulation made their way into federal policy conversations.
In 1986, after four years of complex negotiations and divisive politicking, Congress passed the Firearm Owners Protection Act. While the law did create a widespread ban on the ownership and transfer of any automatic weapon not registered before May 19, 1986, overwhelmingly the law had the effect of limiting the regulatory power of the federal government.
The legislation was alternately celebrated as “necessary to restore fundamental fairness and clarity to our nation’s firearms laws” and condemned as a “national disgrace.” Most strikingly, it signaled to the nation that the legislative arm of the NRA, and the gun rights movement more broadly, had emerged as one of the most powerful lobbying groups in the nation.
Debates over firearm regulation in recent American history have arisen out of the regulation of controlled substances and the attendant violence that follows. The resulting laws have emerged alongside–and have been influenced by–the increasing power of the national gun lobby.
Today, in both popular and policy conversations, gun control will be framed around the issue of mass shootings. But as we look back on their significance through the lens of history, will we recognize the import of these large-scale tragedies in shaping federal gun policy? Or, as these most recent horrors fade into our collective memory, will drug policy return as the primary vehicle for the regulation of firearms?
And if it does, what will be the impact of last month’s victories in efforts to decriminalize marijuana?
Abigail Perkiss is an assistant professor of history at Kean University in Union, New Jersey, and a fellow at the Kean University Center for History, Politics and Policy.
Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness (New York: The New Press, 2010).
Todd Garvey, “Medical Marijuana: The Supremacy Clause, Federalism, and the Interplay Between State and Federal Laws,” Congressional Research Service, 9 November 2012 (http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R42398.pdf)
David Hardy, “The Firearms Owners’ Protection Act: A Historical and Legal Perspective” 17 Cumb. L. Rev. 585-682 (1986).
Michael Lerner, Dry Manhattan: Prohibition in New York City (New York: Harvard University Press, 2008).
Nate Silver, “In Public ‘Conversations, on Guns, a Rhetorical Shift,” FiveThirtyEight, 14 December 2012 (http://fivethirtyeight.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/12/14/in-public-conversation-on-guns-a-rhetorical-shift/)
Edward D. Sullivan, Rattling the Cup on Chicago Crime (New York: The Vangaurd Press, 1929).