Number 2, November, 1995

The Gun Lobby Counts Off

By John Taylor

Exclusive to The Libertarian Enterprise

         In a recent issue (October 10, 1995) of CrimeStrike News (the NRA/ILA newsletter from their "war-on-crime" department) there appears an article attacking the "anti-incarceration lobby". This article contains the seed of some serious problems for the NRA in terms of self-defense -- at least the defense of their stated position.
         The article, entitled "Violent Offenders Outnumber Drug Offenders In U.S. Prisons", cites statistics provided by Dr. Allen Beck of the Bureau of Justice Statistics that show that the number of inmates incarcerated for violent offenses is much larger than the number of those incarcerated for drug offenses. Apparently the NRA feels that the "anti-incarceration lobby" has been shading the truth by asserting that drug incarcerations outnumber violent crime incarcerations. The BJS figures quoted are as follows: the number of inmates locked up for violent offenses is up from 173,300 in 1980 to 394,500 in 1993; the number of inmates in state prisons for drug convictions rose from 19,000 to 186,000 between 1980 and 1993.
         Tanya Metaksa, the NRA/ILA's chief lobbyist, says, in the NRA's article, "The anti-incarceration lobby has been twisting the truth for years. The fact is, the majority of criminals in prisons are violent offenders, not harmless petty thieves. And even if it were true that many people who 'don't belong in prison' are in prison, that would be an argument against the law that sent them to prison wrongly, not the prison itself. ..."
         I agree with Mrs. Metaksa 100%. And I certainly don't speak for the "anti-incarceration lobby" -- heck, I don't even know who they are. But I will take exception to the NRA's unstated implication that, because of the numbers quoted, the premise of the war-on-crime system model for incarceration as espoused by the NRA (and others) is valid. From the BJS data that the NRA themselves quote, it would appear to me that there is something fundamentally wrong (and getting "wronger") with a system of justice that appears to find it easier to fill the prisons with perpetrators of victimless crimes than it does to punish those who are the true predators.
         Let me offer a couple of observations. First, the numbers quoted appear to be only for state prisons -- but a number of drug crimes are 'federalized'. Do the BJS numbers reflect incarcerations in federal prisons as well? And, if not, how would inclusion of those numbers affect the NRA's assertions?
         Number two, and more importantly, take another look at the numbers provided. In 1980, violent crime incarcerations outnumbered drug incarcerations by just over 9:1. By 1993, that ratio had dropped to just over 2:1. So, the pace of incarceration in fact HAS increased far more rapidly for drug offenders than for violent criminals. Expressed another way, incarceration for violent crime increased 228% between 1980 and 1993. Incarceration for drug crime increased 979% during the same period.
         We all seem to agree that we are not collectively satisfied with the number of incarcerations for violent crimes, nor with the degree of punishment for those who are successfully imprisoned. The trends would seem to suggest that the war on drugs has been effective, if in no other way, in escalating the number of incarcerations for drug crimes.
         Whether or not this has had a negative effect on the number of incarcerations for violent crimes is problematical. Perhaps, though, it is logical to assert that, for the past decade and a half, if the enforcement emphasis has been shifted toward victimless crimes, and the resources available for enforcement have remained relatively constant, then we can conclude that there has in fact been a reduction in enforcement of laws against violent crime. Maybe a simple solution would be to concentrate on violent crime and de-emphasize (dare I say de-criminalize?) victimless crime?
         Now before I'm attacked for being "soft on crime", let me offer a couple of qualifications. I oppose the coercive sale of drugs to kids and the drug dealers' practice of conning kids into working as 'mules' to reduce their own risk -- not to mention a whole raft of other behaviors practiced by drug dealers. (Of course, decriminalization of drugs makes those problems -- and the street corner dealers themselves -- go away.)
         Also, let me state that I am wholeheartedly in favor of punishing criminals for their offenses against individuals. I do however prefer a punishment system that extracts restitution over one that provides hotels, health spas, and taxpayer-funded advanced educations to the convicted.
         So let me caution the NRA and all the rest of the tough-on-crime groups: it is easy to persecute drug users, gun owners, cigarette smokers, separatists, religious sects, tax resisters, and other perpetrators of crimes against no one. It is a lot harder to devise a system that reduces the incentives to commit crimes, focuses on crimes that have victims, and punishes offenses through restitution. It's also easy to look at the numbers, and miss seeing the forest for counting the trees.

John Taylor ( or is a husband and father of two; a free-lance essayist and editorialist; and a systems engineer with broad-based analysis experience.

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