Does “banning” bad things actually work?
August 18, 2019 2:35 PM   Subscribe

I was wondering if there are any examples unrelated to gun violence, where “banning” something has demonstrably proven to be effective at whatever perceived problem the ban was intended to remedy?

I was discussing the recent mass shootings with a family member who is a devoted NRA member. Thankfully he is a very reasonable person, and I am able to have reasoned discussions on the topic of gun control with him. However, such discussions invariably lead to the topic of “banning” guns, and if it is effective to implement such bans (the old trope that “if you outlaw guns, only outlaws will have guns”).

There is a knee-jerk aspect to “banning” things that I’m always weary of, and I often feel that it’s often used in lieu of critically thinking about the larger issues surrounding the thing being banned. But I still have to believe that there are actually documented instances in which a ban on something has actually led to measurable results that justifies the implementation of the ban?

Are there any good examples out there?
posted by melorama to Society & Culture (38 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Some that come to mind are:
- Leaded gasoline
- Ozone-depleting chemicals
- Smoking in workplaces and public accommodations
posted by slkinsey at 2:45 PM on August 18, 2019 [53 favorites]

posted by escape from the potato planet at 2:49 PM on August 18, 2019 [33 favorites]

Leaded paint
Removing mercury from PVC production
Banning PCBs in electrical equipment

I'm struggling to find a case where a ban didn't work, frankly.
posted by scruss at 2:50 PM on August 18, 2019 [27 favorites]

Seatbelt laws have saved lives if you can view the thing being banned as “not wearing a seatbelt.” In states where police can pull someone over just for not wearing a seatbelt, seatbelt use is higher and death rates from automobile accidents is lower.

Asbestos bans led to a reduction in mesothelioma.

Banning “not having a smoke alarm” has reduced fire related deaths.
posted by Waiting for Pierce Inverarity at 2:50 PM on August 18, 2019 [21 favorites]

Seconding the Montreal Protocol ban on CFCs, which has been hugely successful in shrinking the hole in the ozone layer (though it turns out that some Chinese factories have been violating the ban).
posted by pinochiette at 2:51 PM on August 18, 2019 [5 favorites]

I'm struggling to find a case where a ban didn't work, frankly.

posted by DarlingBri at 2:54 PM on August 18, 2019 [22 favorites]

I'm struggling to find a case where a ban didn't work, frankly.

So, I don't think I've ever put this together before reading this discussion, but I think the reason people immediately leap to "bans don't work" is that, very specifically, bans on vices don't seem to work. So, prohibition of alcohol didn't work, banning drugs doesn't work, banning sex work doesn't work, etc. But it may just be that these sorts of things are exceptions, rather than the rule.
posted by Ragged Richard at 2:56 PM on August 18, 2019 [49 favorites]

Now that I read some of the comments, I realize that I should have limited my question to “banning things that some people don’t want to be banned”
posted by melorama at 3:04 PM on August 18, 2019

Singapore banned chewing gum which was super annoying and people basically pick it up as a treat in nearby countries in small quantities. But it now feels weird to notice gum as litter in other places because it doesn't happen here. Fireworks were also banned and I remember as a kid people buying them and bringing them back across the border illegally, but that's much rarer now because the home fireworks tradition faded (we still have public displays) and they used to show us gruesome injury pictures at school with warnings.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 3:11 PM on August 18, 2019 [5 favorites]

You may want to clarify what you mean by the word "ban".

It could be interpreted narrowly - "to forbid the manufacture, sale, or possession of a specific class of good".

Or it can be interpreted more broadly - "to legally prohibit a specific type of action or speech". (This could include things such as lotteries and hate speech. Presumably, we aren't including prohibitions on violent crime, theft, and fraud as "bans".)

Even more broadly than that, you could say that mandating things is a kind of ban - e.g. banning the sale of cars without seatbelts, or the practice of medicine without a license.

At some point, though, your definition starts to include most laws that are on the books - most of which either forbid or mandate something.

Also: consider that gun control laws ("banning guns", if you like) have been enormously successful at controlling gun violence in much of the developed world. You don't need to look to other kinds of bans to see that gun control can be effective.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 3:11 PM on August 18, 2019 [6 favorites]

Obviously guns and drugs are banned and most free speech, but those are enforced with extreme measures. The fireworks and gum are two smaller pleasures that got removed with public grumbling then acceptance.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 3:12 PM on August 18, 2019

We had one mass shooting in Tasmania and banned certain types of guns and restricted access generally. It hasn't happened since. Honestly, gun violence just isn't a "thing" here. Occasionally bad guys have them, but then, so do some cops.

Likewise if you look at CDC data for gun related deaths in California (more strict) and SC (less strict) and control for population, you'll find restricted access has resulted in much lower numbers for CA.

Banning lead paint worked too.

There's a difference between banning something and restricting it. If you ban something (alcohol, sex, drugs) you can't regulate it and it creates a black market. Most people I know don't want to "ban guns" - we want them *more regulated*. Alcohol is regulated. Sex work and drugs can be legalised and regulated. Gambling is another big one. Legalising and regulating works.

Australia didn't ban guns, but they are heavily regulated. This is the case in most other countries. America had some of the loosest gun laws in the world. And it shows.
posted by jrobin276 at 3:13 PM on August 18, 2019 [26 favorites]

Can we assume Australia's National Firearms Agreement is already part of the conversation?

Kinder Eggs, Lawn Darts...

You should cut that argument off as the Nirvana Fallacy, though. Pro-2A people love to argue whether banning guns will eliminate all gun crimes. Virtually every instance of this is changing the subject, from what's usually something like, "will gun laws (help) prevent this kind of shooting, to having to prevent all kinds of shootings.

Always look for splitting in these arguments, which is a cop-out so that they don't have to even consider anti-gun perspectives. It's easier to choose an outcome, say that's the only criteria, and let the anti-gun person come up with reasons to ban, which the pro-gun person can easily swat away with a hoary rejoinder.
posted by rhizome at 3:16 PM on August 18, 2019 [7 favorites]

I think the free market on drugs is sort of like what you're asking about. The FDA's power to regulate drugs (and pretty much to effectively ban people from marketing and using substances as freely as some people would like) has not always been to the degree we are used to since the later part of the 20th century. I think it's also just as complicated a question for some people as the question on limiting the relatively free market that guns are still available in.

[To be clear, I'm 100% thinking we need at least as much gun control as drug control, and perhaps the level of drug control we have has gone a little overboard...]

I also think that placing at least some degree of regulation of drugs has overall been successful, though not perfect, so it's an example of a 'ban' that has been successful.
posted by Tandem Affinity at 3:17 PM on August 18, 2019

Fireworks are banned (well, heavily regulated, licensed etc) here. I'm pretty sure the number of people maiming themselves dropped a lot when the new rules were introduced - even if people can (and do) still pop up to Canberra to stock up.
posted by pompomtom at 3:38 PM on August 18, 2019

Yeah, the distinction between regulation and an outright ban is an important one.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 3:41 PM on August 18, 2019 [6 favorites]

Building and planning regulations. It’s boring, but they’re also effective bans on unsafe structures.

If you want to build a house or apartment block (or any kind of building), you can’t just slap up a jerry built shoebox, it’s got to be done correctly to standard and the law. It needs the right number of exits, enough foundations, any number of requirements. Non compliant building is how people die.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 3:53 PM on August 18, 2019 [6 favorites]

“banning things that some people don’t want to be banned”

Oddly, it might not seem to be a thing that people want, but lead in paint, petrol and solder all had adherents (and strong industry lobbies) to keep them. Lead in paint was claimed to be hygienic, leaded fuel was supposed to make your car engine last longer and give fewer VOC emissions, and leaded solder still causes fights in electronics forums.
posted by scruss at 4:08 PM on August 18, 2019 [22 favorites]

When I first moved to Montana drinking and driving was legal. Eventually they banned that, and it was highly effective at reducing the incidence of it happening, and reducing the harmful effects of people doing it.

It still happens of course, enough that someone who really wanted to say "oh well yabbut it didn't work!" would have some grist for their mill. But part of my point in bringing it up is that it was not only highly effective, but most people live in places where it's almost unthinkable to have ever had it legal in the first place!
posted by traveler_ at 4:13 PM on August 18, 2019 [4 favorites]

Cars. You have to be old enough, have some training, pass written and practical exams, have and maintain a licence (which can be revoked), register your car, keep a licence plate number on it, meet minimum maintenance standards, and have basic insurance. There are consequences for irresponsible use or failure to comply with the rules, and drivers are responsible for any damage they cause.

There are designated places to go if you want to do tricks or drive really fast etc...

If we regulated guns the way we regulated cars, I'd be pretty happy.
posted by jrobin276 at 4:18 PM on August 18, 2019 [9 favorites]

“banning things that some people don’t want to be banned”

Oddly, it might not seem to be a thing that people want, but lead in paint, petrol and solder all had adherents (and strong industry lobbies) to keep them

The comparison to vices is a good one—it’s not necessarily “things certain people didn’t want banned.” I am trying and failing to think of a category that captures it—things people use for escapism? Things viewed as immoral that people do anyway? Things people will break the law to do? Whether guns belong in that category is a step further (I would say no—that guns are one means by which people engage in vice rather than a vice itself).
posted by sallybrown at 5:16 PM on August 18, 2019

Banning works for things that have a reasonable alternate. So the paint market has been been affected by bans on lead, and on volatile solvents. Niche market paints have been affected by additional bans. But most people don't care if they have to use a water-based paint and not an oil-based paint.
posted by SemiSalt at 5:55 PM on August 18, 2019 [1 favorite]

Alcohol is not that hard to make, pot is often grown by individuals, so these are harder to ban.

Banning lead in paint and gas required manufacturers to change, not individuals. Old painters will tell you that lead made paint nicer to work with, and it made engines smoother in gas. But it makes people stupid and sick, so it's properly banned.

I live near a lake; there's a pair of eagles - they're pretty awesome to see. Banning DDT has had benefits. However, mosquitoes are responsible for many deaths, and DDT was excellent at killing them, so, trade-offs.
posted by theora55 at 7:05 PM on August 18, 2019 [2 favorites]

posted by Charity Garfein at 7:44 PM on August 18, 2019

I mean, the War on Drugs didn't work in the sense that people still take drugs. But far fewer people take drugs now than when you could buy laudanum freely over the counter, you know?

(The problems with diversion of prescription drugs are a slightly different issue, closer to people flouting building codes or driving without insurance).
posted by tinkletown at 7:56 PM on August 18, 2019

The ban on murder, while not 100% effective and subject to catastrophic failure, seems to work pretty well.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 7:56 PM on August 18, 2019 [2 favorites]

I know you said not guns, but guns have been banned successfully, leading to less shootings, in most of the world.
posted by xammerboy at 8:10 PM on August 18, 2019 [2 favorites]

“if you outlaw guns, only outlaws will have guns”

If they actually say this, just looked confused and reply with: yeah no shit, that’s what happens when you have something that’s outlawed. You become an outlaw. The first half the sentence makes it very clear that having a gun makes you an outlaw.

Etc etc.
posted by sideshow at 12:53 AM on August 19, 2019

The UK is an interesting example.

We have far less mass shootings, (People try to make guns in different ways, and there is absolutely a black market but limited) and stats on crimes using a firearm (second link) show a general decline.

Knife crime exists - but its better than guns, in less harm to the public as a whole.
The army and the police absolutely have guns.

More subtly, only outlaws have guns is somewhat true - an individual with a gun or trying to make one is socially marked as deeply suspect, as there is no grey area. Some people see this as heavyhanded. Views vary.
posted by eyeofthetiger at 5:46 AM on August 19, 2019 [1 favorite]

banning things that some people don’t want to be banned

All the things I listed were things some people didn't want banned. But the first two (leaded gasoline and ozone-depleting chemicals) were primarily wanted by businesses for business-related purposes.

Smoking in the workplace and in public accommodations, on the other hand, was something that an extremely vocal minority of people very much did not want banned. And yet smoking bans have been overwhelmingly successful. They have not only been efficacious but, contrary to many dire predictions, turned out to be a positive for many businesses (for example, it turned out that a lot of people had been staying out of bars because they were always filled with clouds of cigarette smoke). More to the point, smoking bans have succeeded in changing the culture in a relatively short time period.
posted by slkinsey at 8:07 AM on August 19, 2019

"I mean, the War on Drugs didn't work in the sense that people still take drugs. But far fewer people take drugs now than when you could buy laudanum freely over the counter, you know? "

Keep in mind, if those drugs were legal, companies would fall over themselves trying to get consumers to try their product, think about it, normalize it with kids, associate it with things, get it in media, with the end goal of getting as many customers hooked as they can. The same way they do with gambling, guns, sugar, toys, and everything else they are allowed to sell.

Sex, drugs, fun are hard to ban because they are good things that people enjoy and when done properly nobody really gets hurt. A gun doesn't have any good use cases, the best argument anyone has for them is that they can be used for defense and that's really pathetically bad argument. Generally they are for hurting, killing, or destroying things. Certainly some people find the act of firing a gun pleasurable, but generally a machine that makes a deafening noise and is incredibly deadly is not a universal pleasure.

It almost seems like that act can only be fun with conditioning and encouragement/reinforcement. I don't think if there wasn't an NRA and arms-trade lobbyists that gun culture would have gotten to the disgusting place it has. America is the country this obsessed with guns because we've allowed entities with vested interests in arms proliferation at any costs to dictate our policies and attitudes.
posted by GoblinHoney at 8:29 AM on August 19, 2019

This is essentially the case for regulation (and regulatory agencies). I work in the drug and medical device field. Before about 60-80 years ago, there were no enforcement actions available to make sure that X drug or device didn't harm people unless it caused enough harm to make the papers and cause an uproar. Legislators created the laws and regulations that led to the development of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (etc.) after several of these crises.

So, for instance, the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (and its predecessors) banned selling a drug without first demonstrating to a third party that those claims were legitimate and not outweighed by adverse effects. I like bringing up examples like this in conversation because people tend to take at least some medications or use/have some medical devices in their bodies--it's easy to relate to the desire to make sure that someone's out there making sure some charlatan isn't selling us snake oil (or worse).
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 8:34 AM on August 19, 2019 [2 favorites]

Thalidomide was never approved for sale in the U.S. as a morning sickness drug and the effect that had is apparent when compared with jurisdictions where it was was permitted in the early 1960s (the U.K., New Zealand, Australia, and Canada).
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 8:45 AM on August 19, 2019 [1 favorite]

Personal fireworks are banned in my city, but you can drive like 20 minutes out of town and buy crazy ones for super cheap. The fines apparently are high enough that the ban mostly works. Stray personal fireworks are incredibly rare, even on the 4th of July.
posted by The_Vegetables at 8:46 AM on August 19, 2019

A more nuanced example is an alcohol ban for young people aka the minimum legal drinking age.
posted by oceano at 9:30 AM on August 19, 2019 [2 favorites]

The framing around calling something a "ban" vs. "regulation" is pretty significant. E.g. in the context of drugs, I think many reasonable people are coming around to the idea that banning certain drugs—mostly those with recreational uses—is bad policy. But very few people think that regulating them is bad. "Ban" is an intrinsically negative, heavily loaded word, both in general but very specifically in the context of gun control policy in the US.

You are never, ever, if you argue until you're blue in the face and fall over dead, going to convince even a mildly-pro-2A person of the rightness of gun bans. You may, however, be able to find middle ground on the need for regulation, and with that accomplished you are really just haggling over the price, so to speak. You've moved the conversation from overcoming a flat-out "nope" to a discussion of the finer points of implementing various policies, which is a big difference.

I think the comparison to motor vehicle regulation is a good starting point; unlicensed motor vehicles are de facto "banned" (from public spaces) by states, as part of the regulatory structure, but you don't hear many people claiming the DMV exists to implement or enforce a "car ban". Once you've accepted the need for regulation and license plates, etc., the need to prevent unlicensed/unregistered vehicles falls out pretty obviously. But nobody focuses on that part, the focus is on the benefits of regulation. If you were trying to sell someone on automobile regulation and started off with a discussion about towing and confiscating un-plated cars, you'd be a lot more likely to lose their support right out of the gate.

I have made something of a hobbyhorse of arguing firearms policy with very strongly pro-2A people, and my feeling is that there's not as much daylight between the typical person on either side of the issue as many partisans assume. It's mostly just in-group/out-group politics and kneejerk opposition to anything that smacks of agreement with the "other side". People will disagree with you simply out of spite (and carry that spite all the way to the voting booth) if you frame, or allow the discussion to be framed, the wrong way. IMO, is it not worth trying to argue with people you don't have some sort of in-group rapport with from the beginning. No member of the "other" is going to change their mind, you must establish—and actually have—some bona fide status within their social/political/cultural group first.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:40 PM on August 19, 2019 [3 favorites]

So, I know this is a bit tangential, but every time a highly-lethal method of suicide is "banned" (or regulated out of existence, e.g. by changing the way ovens work or putting up security rails on a bridge) the overall suicide rate goes down. Not just the rate using that method, but overall, meaning that people don't just flow around the obstacle and find a different way to kill themselves, but rather become less likely to kill themselves with each "easy" way that is removed. So, when it comes to suicide reduction, "banning" things is extremely effective.
posted by gloriouslyincandescent at 7:32 PM on August 19, 2019 [1 favorite]

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