Excorcizing the twin demons, guns and drugs
When Rep. Ronald Coleman changed his mind and decided to support the so-called assault weapon ban approved by the House last spring, the Texas Democrat said he wanted to "make it harder for drug thugs and gangs to get the machine guns that wantonly kill our police officers and children." Coleman was wrong to think that the legislation he was about to vote for had anything to do with machine guns, but let's pass over that point for now. His remark is interesting for another reason: It concisely expresses and draws upon the symbolic power of both firearms and mind-altering chemicals, as represented by the gun-toting drug dealer, the nightmare of every parent and suburbanite.
Coleman was seeking to discredit guns by associating them with drug dealing. But the image works both ways. Drug warriors try to instill fear of illegal substances by linking them to gun violence. Thomas Constantine, director of the Drug Enforcement Administration, recently told The Washington Times: "Many people talk about the nonviolent drug offender. That is a rare species. There is not some sterile drug type not involved in violence who is contributing some good to the community. That is ridiculous. They are contributing nothing but evil." Thus, supporters of gun control and drug control both use the threat posed by violent, lawless people to justify banning inanimate objects.
Gun control and drug control are usually associated with opposite ends of the political spectrum. Presidents Reagan and Bush were eager to pursue the war on drugs but generally wary of gun control. President Clinton has made gun control a major goal, while his drug strategy is almost invisible. But these two policies have much in common at both a philosophical and a practical level. Both blame inanimate objects for complex social problems, promising to control crime and disorder by controlling their symbols. And both are ultimately harmful, for many of the same reasons.
Given the symbolic power of guns and drugs, it's not surprising that efforts to control them have been shaped by racism and xenophobia, by fear of outsiders and the disruption associated with them. In the United States, attempts to ban inexpensive handguns have historically been motivated by fear of blacks and members of other minority groups.
After the Civil War, several Southern states passed laws aimed at limiting access to cheap firearms by emancipated blacks. In 1870, Tennessee banned the sale of all but the most expensive handguns, which blacks generally could not afford. Arkansas enacted a similar ban in 1881. In 1902, South Carolina passed a law forbidding pistol sales to anyone except "sheriffs and their special deputies." In 1893, Alabama imposed heavy taxes on handgun sales with the aim of making them too expensive for blacks or poor whites to buy. Texas followed suit in 1907.
In the early 20th century, as David Kopel reports in his 1992 book, The Samurai, the Mountie, and the Cowboy, concerns about immigrants from central, southern, and eastern Europe fed support for gun-control measures in the Northeast. In 1903, for example, the New York Tribune complained about pistols found "chiefly in the pockets of ignorant and quarrelsome immigrants of law-breaking propensities" and condemned "the practice of going armed...among citizens of foreign birth." In 1911, the same year The New York Times noted a disturbing fondness for handguns among "low-browed foreigners," New York passed the Sullivan Law, which required handgun owners to obtain police permits. The law gave local authorities a great deal of discretion to prevent "undesirables" from legally owning handguns.
The first person sentenced under the law, an Italian immigrant, was lectured by the judge: "It is unfortunate that this is the custom with you and your kind, and that fact, combined with your irascible nature, furnishes much of the criminal business …