How the Iron Law of Prohibition Relates to Firearms

While I understand that the most zealous gun control advocates are unlikely to listen to me because they believe I’m a psychopathic murderer who wants to kill children I know that there are a lot of logical individuals who currently advocate for gun control because they believe it will lead to a safer society. This post is for the latter group. I recently came across an interesting post on the Ludwig von Mises Institute website discussing the effects of cannabis prohibition:

Super potent pot is not a market failure. It is simply the result of government prohibition. In fact, it is one of the best examples of the iron law of prohibition. When government enacts and enforces a prohibition it eliminates the free market which is then replaced by a black market. This typically changes everything about “the market.” It changes how the product is produced, how it is distributed and sold to consumers. It changes how the product is packaged and in particular, the product itself. The iron law of prohibition looks specifically at how prohibition makes drugs like alcohol and marijuana more potent. The key to the phenomenon is that law enforcement makes it more risky to make, sell, or consume the product. This encourages suppliers to concentrate the product to make it smaller and thus more potent. In this manner you get “more bang for the buck.”

During alcohol prohibition (1920-1933), alcohol consumption went from a beer, wine, and whiskey market to one of rotgut whiskey with little wine or beer available. The rotgut whiskey could be more than twice as potent of the normal whiskey that was produced both before and after prohibition. The product is then diluted at the point of consumption. During the 1920s all sorts of cocktails were invented to dilute the whiskey and to cover up for bad smells and tastes.

The iron law of prohibition states that “the more intense the law enforcement, the more potent the prohibited substance becomes.” When a substance is prohibited the sellers and buyers of that substance have a vested interest in delivering the most bang for buck because the more of that substance they possess the harder it is to conceal. Small amounts of cannabis can be concealed in film canisters, flashlights (just take out the batteries), cell phones (once again, remove the battery), and any other object that has a hallowed out space. Large amounts of cannabis cannot be concealed so easily and therefore detection by law enforcement becomes much easier.

While the iron law of prohibition relates to drug prohibitions I think it’s also applicable to other forms of prohibition. Let’s look at the type of firearms preferred by violent criminals:

New state stats show that firearms were responsible for more than 58% of the murders statewide last year — but the biggest problem was handguns.

Of the 769 homicides reported in 2011, 393 were the result of handguns. There were 16 deaths by shotgun, five by rifle, and 33 by an unknown “firearm-type,” the state Division of Criminal Justice Services reports.

The Department of Justice’s Guns Used in Crimes [PDF] report backs that claim:

Although most crime is not committed with guns, most gun crime is committed with handguns. pages 1 & 2

This makes sense when you consider the iron law of prohibition. Much like cannabis buyers and sellers, violent criminals, especially ones who are prohibited from possessing firearms, have a vested interest in firearms that can be concealed from law enforcement. Laws prohibiting individuals from lawfully carrying firearms didn’t discourage people from carrying firearms, it merely made the need to possess concealable firearms greater. The same can be said for prohibiting certain individuals from carrying firearms, they now seek firearms that can be easily concealed.

This brings up an interesting consequence of enacting even stricter gun control laws. What would happen if advocates of gun control were able to achieve their goals of a partial or complete prohibition against firearms? Firearm manufacturing and transfers wouldn’t stop, they would simply move underground (or further underground in the case currently prohibited firearm transfers). In addition to moving underground the demand for firearms that deliver more bang for their buck would increase. Firearms would likely become more potent by decreasing in size, becoming more difficult to detect, and, potentially, increasing in power. Resources would be invested in working around the prohibition by making firearms that are more difficult for law enforcement officers to detect.

As it currently stands the demand for difficult to detect firearms is relatively low. Those of us who carry a concealed firearm want one that is difficult for the average person to detect but we usually care little if our firearm is easy for law enforcement agents to detect. Resources are put into making concealable firearms but not undetectable firearms. Criminals tend to favor currently produced firearms because they are cheaper than developing alternatives (everything is subject cost-benefit analysis). Few criminals are going to invest the resources in producing more potent firearms when currently available firearms are good enough. That would likely change under a stronger or complete prohibition. Suddenly the investment in resources to develop very difficult to detect firearms would make sense.

Prohibitions have consequences. When alcohol was prohibited in the United States manufacturers began distilling extremely potent liquors to deliver more bang for buck. The current cannabis prohibition has resulted in a similar outcome, cannabis today is far more potent then it was before the prohibition. A firearm prohibition would likely result in the same outcome, firearms would become more difficult to detect and potentially more powerful. This is something that advocates of gun control should consider when asking themselves if a prohibition would actually lead to a safer society.