Is gun control doomed like prohibition was?
December 20, 2012 6:44 PM   Subscribe

Are there any legitimate parallels between the temperance movement and present-day gun control advocacy?

This topic continually arises in conversations I have with libertarian-minded friends who, when presented with arguments that maybe we should limit the firepower and death-dealing capacity readily available to the public, strike an all-knowing and world-weary pose and automatically allude to the folly of trying to ban alcohol.

I think its BS. But I would love the opinion and knowledge of the hivemind, one way or another.
posted by chicxulub to Law & Government (14 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I mean, both movements were/are quite broad, though you wouldn't know it from how they get discussed. Some people wanted to limit guns/alcohol, some to ban them outright, while others just tried to convince people to abstain voluntarily.

Otherwise there are more differences than similarities really. Chief among them is that though there were temperance movements all over the 'western' world, prohibition in the US was pretty unique. Gun control laws much stricter than those being proposed here are common across the world, and haven't caused any major problems, nor anything near as exciting as speakeasies.
posted by Garm at 7:02 PM on December 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

It depends on how exactly you define gun control. Perhaps the biggest parallel is a matter of impracticality. The impracticality of many gun control schemes that seem to pop up, with the impracticality of legislating away a taste for alcohol.

This doesn't mean that all gun control ideas are not practical. But in light of recent events, I haven't heard of many realistic ideas that would have kept the tragedy from happening. Gun control laws that might have averted the event also run from impractical to completely undoable and probably unconstitutional.

I think the comparison is probably weak even if your libertarian friends are right, because it's a strain to find clear parallels.
posted by 2N2222 at 7:07 PM on December 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

The major difference, on a purely practical level, is that distilling is relatively easy if you're determined and know the basics, whereas making a reliable firearm that won't blow up in your face requires a machine shop and some serious knowhow. Though improvising various things is certainly possible, most improvised guns are single shot and not especially accurate.

However, great strides are being made with 3D printing and people have already begun making gun parts with 3D printers (though being plastic, they don't last long), so that may not be for long.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 7:15 PM on December 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

A friend of mine actually just wrote a Bitch article in her Lady Liquor series on this very topic.
posted by Kpele at 7:34 PM on December 20, 2012

Guns have not been around for thousands of years.

Guns are not physically addictive.

Guns are not used in religious rituals.

Guns are not easy to make in your basement or woodshed.


No one is proposing a total ban on "guns". People are proposing a ban on semi automatic weapons, high capacity magazines and armor piercing bullets. Prohibition likely would have been much more successful if it had banned 190 proof grain alcohol but left all other forms of alcohol legal.

So, no. It's not a legitimate comparison for your friend's purpose.
posted by alms at 7:45 PM on December 20, 2012 [10 favorites]

This is a difference, not a similarity - but Prohibition (though not the entire temperance movement) was a ban on all alcohol, and mainstream gun control these days is about regulation, not a total ban. If you look at the transcript from Obama's recent gun control speech, he is very clear that he is not trying to eliminate an individual right to own guns - he suggesting closing loopholes that allow people to buy guns without background checks, and suggesting a ban on assault weapons. It's nothing like a complete ban.
posted by insectosaurus at 7:48 PM on December 20, 2012

I believe that Prohibition was a result of the Suffrage Movement --- women got the vote and they voted for Prohibition (mostly because men were spending their time in saloons, where women were not allowed). Women also tend to support gun control more than men.
posted by goethean at 8:05 PM on December 20, 2012

Temperance and Prohibition are two different things. One is a value, the other is a ban.

The analogy is: gun control is a big tent movement like temperance was, with hundreds of shades of gray and policy options within it; a total ban on all weapons is more like Prohibition. Some people in the temperace movement were pro-Prohibition, but certainly not all.

Both temperance and the promotion of responsible gun policy are reform movements which start from worthy social goals. The temperance movement needed to address what was essentially an epidemic of alcoholism, particularly damaging to families in poverty at a time when women and children were largely at the mercy of men for cash income.

This seems to be the talking point of the day, today, as I heard a couple of radio callers offer it. I would raise with them the question of enforcement. Where prohibitions fail, it's often because the law enforcement capacity (time, money, priority) is not there to enforce the laws on the books, or is unwilling to.

It's kind of a red herring, though, and you don't have to fall for it. You don't need to argue that prohibition would work perfectly. You just need to argue that temperance (ie gun control) will reduce mortality - which is an easy case to make, as there are abundant examples from other countries about the impact of changed arms policy on their gun death rate, even though there are most certainly some people with illegal guns in those countries still.
posted by Miko at 8:34 PM on December 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

goethean, women weren't eligible to vote in the US until 1920, and Prohibition was ratified in 1919, so that argument doesn't make sense.

As others have said, gun control as advanced by its advocates in the US is not a gun ban. The temperance movement was misnamed, because it wasn't about controlling alcohol, it was about banning alcohol.

Also, US Prohibition came after prohibition in Russia, Finland, Norway, Iceland, and Hungary. Several countries tried the prohibition experiment at around the same time, with fairly similar lacks of success.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:00 PM on December 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

The temperance movement was misnamed

I don't think so; the sense of the word was self-restraint, as opposed to legal restraint (aka prohibition).
posted by Miko at 9:12 PM on December 20, 2012

Good point, Miko, I should have said "the temperance movement strayed from its name when it began pushing for legal prohibition, rather than supporting individuals in the choice to abstain". Thanks for clarifying the origins of the name.

I really think the argument chicxulub's friends are making is specious unless it's broadened to the point of "some people wanted to pass laws about something they found dangerous but that other people enjoyed" in which case it's so broad as to be meaningless.

We have state and federal regulations about alcohol right now, even though Prohibition was a disaster and was repealed. We have state and federal regulations about guns right now; changing or expanding those would not be tantamount to Prohibition any more than requiring airbags and safety belts are tantamount to banning cars.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:50 PM on December 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

Primary difference? Alcohol was illegal. I think most of the talk isn't about making guns illegal, but rather on increasing restrictions on who has them under what conditions etc.

I think, generally, making things illegal is bad - if it's illegal you can't regulate it, tax it, or otherwise have any control over it; plus, it creates a black market. Obviously, making something illegal doesn't stop anyone from doing it. I do not think guns should be made illegal, and there are a number of illegal things that I think should be made legal so they can be regulated. (fwiw, I think my govt ideal is Denmark - I'm a borderline socialist) I'm for tighter regulation; NOT a ban. Alcohol was banned. That's the difference.

insectosaurus nailed it.
posted by jrobin276 at 2:21 AM on December 21, 2012

This topic continually arises in conversations I have with libertarian-minded friends who, when presented with arguments that maybe we should limit the firepower and death-dealing capacity readily available to the public, strike an all-knowing and world-weary pose and automatically allude to the folly of trying to ban alcohol.

One big difference is right their response. You're saying "limit" - they hear "ban". You're not talking about banning guns altogether, which is what Prohibition tried to do with alcohol. That right there is one difference.

Another difference is how the two items are used: one of the big flaws in Prohibition was that, at the time, doctors prescribed alcohol as treatment for certain ailments. The Volstead act did have a half-assed clause that allowed for the use of alcohol "in scientific research and in the development of fuel, dye and other lawful industries and practices, such as religious rituals", but said nothing about what kind of alcohol was permitted, or which kinds of "lawful industries," so there was a lot of back-and-forth legal wrangling about "does a doctor count as a lawful industry? Does whiskey count as medicinal use or can a doctor just go with beer? How much alcohol should be prescribed medicinally, and what happens if someone needs more?" and such. This is sort of close to what gun laws are asking for - just restricting use - but those are laws already on the books anyway, so this is kind of a red herring. And while there are lawful industries that call for guns - police, military, and such - those industries are already well-covered by existing gun laws. There is no such "lawful industry" that currently uses guns and would suddenly not be able to.

Another big problem with Prohibition was simply that it was so easy to try to dodge the system via smuggling - but that was largely ecause our neighbors to the north and south were willing to cooperate on that score. Canada, Mexico, and the Carribean had active distilleries all the while the Volstead Act was in effect, and very cheerfully worked with people in the US to help sneak booze in to us. However, when it comes to guns:

* Canada's gun laws are stricter than ours, so it is doubtful they would be as willing to cooperate; and
* Not only do Mexico and the Caribbean not have gun manufacturing to any great extent that I'm aware, they're probably getting most of their guns from us anyway, so they wouldn't be all that keen on trying to smuggle back some of the guns that they had to smuggle away from us.

Hence, nowhere near as much smuggling as there was during Prohibition.

Finally, consider the sheer percentage of people who consume alcohol for any reason - and don't forget the hardcore Catholics who still take both the Host and the Wine at communion - and compare that to the percentage of people who use guns. There is a fuck-ton more people using alcohol than there are people using guns, and when you piss that many people off, they're gonna revolt in one way or another; there simply aren't as many people who would be pissed off by gun control as there wre by Prohibition. In fact, compared to how many people were affected by Prohibition, you could say that the gun lobby is just a niche interest.

So gun control isn't like Prohibition because gun control laws would be less restrictive, would not inconvenience lawful industries who use them, do not have the support for smuggling that alcohol had, and it doesn't affect anywhere near as many people.

(Damn, I wish the paper I wrote on Prohibition was still up on the web because I'd totally link you to it.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:02 AM on December 21, 2012

More broadly: governments have regulated a whole lot of different things throughout history. Sometimes it's gone really well. Sometimes it's gone really badly. Unsuprisingly, if you think government regulation is basically a good idea then you'll be more likely to talk up the successes, and if you think it's basically a bad idea then you'll be more likely to talk up the failures.
posted by and so but then, we at 9:25 AM on December 21, 2012

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