Gangsters and Guns: The Root Causes of Violence in Drug Trafficking (Well, It’s Complicated #5)

A common argument, especially among the more libertarian-minded, is that because a lot of gun violence in American comes from drug dealers, ending the “War on Drugs” would immediately lead to plunging gun violence, especially in poor inner city neighborhoods where the drug trade is rampant and controlled by violent gangs.  But the truth is that’s too simple.

While I do tend to agree that a significant percentage of gun violence is directly tied to the economics of the illegal drug supply chain, the problem is that “calling off the drug war” does not in itself mean “take steps to make it an aboveground legal market.” To see what I mean, let’s look at what motivates violence in the drug market.

Gangsters, by and large, don’t go around shooting each other for no reason (though sometimes they do–the profession attracts a lot of violent sociopaths). Generally, violence is used for two main purposes in black markets (of any kind, from drugs to human trafficking to gun running to illegal food sales in Venezuela): to maintain property rights (e.g., protect one’s stash, one’s territory, one’s supply chain, etc, against competition), and to enforce contract rights (e.g., to ensure people play by the rules and don’t try to rip you off, by ensuring they fear your reprisal).  Both can take the form of what is sometimes called “instrumental violence,” that is, violence directly related to economic activities.  But the latter–enforcing contract rights–can also account for a significant amount of what is called “expressive violence,” in that such violence serves to reinforce the gang’s power, control, and reputation in its territory, thus decreasing the likelihood competitors and customers will attempt to cross them.

To remove both of these sources of violence requires giving drug dealers alternate means to maintain their property rights and to enforce their contracts. This requires not merely ending prosecution and incarceration for nonviolent drug offenses, but actually giving the drug market access to legal structures: they need to be able to set up shop legally in exchange for rent, so they aren’t fighting over corners; they need to be able to enter legally binding contracts with suppliers; they need to be able to enforce their rights through the legal system–call the police when someone steals from them, sue a supplier for breach of contract when shipments go missing, etc.

Further, the individuals currently in the underground drug trade either need to be able to transition peacefully to the aboveground drug trade, or be removed from the market entirely–if the barriers to entry into the legal market are too high, the illegal market will continue to operate until it is either economically untenable (through competition with legal alternatives) or shut down by law enforcement. And we’ve seen how well the latter works in practice through the past half century of the Drug War, so it may not be the best option except for the most egregiously violent criminals. By giving current illegal drug dealers the ability to transition to a legal, profitable, and regulated drug market and shifting the burden for enforcing property and contract rights onto the government, they no longer need to risk felony charges for doing so themselves (and for that matter they no longer need to risk getting shot themselves in disputes with other illegal drug traffickers). Only those individuals enamored of a “gangster lifestyle” would have an incentive to continue criminal activities instead of shifting to the safer and profitable legal drug trade, thus greatly decreasing the overall rate of violence currently fueled by drugs being a highly profitable black market.

This will not solve gang activity, nor will it solve all gang related violent crime.  There are certainly other criminal enterprises that many gangs involve themselves in–prostitution, gun running, illegal gambling, extortion, racketeering, etc.  Legalizing and regulating the drug trade, even with low barriers to entry to allow current drug traffickers to transition to legal markets, will have no effect on these other sources of revenue and their associated criminal violence.  But it will absolutely decrease overall violence as gangs get out of the drug trade and its associated high levels of street violence fades away, in favor of the relatively low violence in other criminal markets that rely less on direct territorial control of prized retail locations.

Ending the Drug War alone won’t affect the primary motivations for drug related violent crime, because the crime isn’t generally caused by criminals trying to avoid prosecution and incarceration.  Violence in the drug trade isn’t caused directly by the drug war; it’s caused more broadly by the fact the drug trade is a black market controlled by organized crime. Because it’s a black market, those in the business of selling drugs have no alternatives to ensure they stay in business but to make sure everyone plays by the rules or gets shot.  That’s the problem that needs to be addressed in order to solve the associated outcome of high levels of violence.

1 thought on “Gangsters and Guns: The Root Causes of Violence in Drug Trafficking (Well, It’s Complicated #5)”

  1. Hello. Speaking of gun violence, I also saw (and enjoyed) your post over a Donohue(Donohoe. Whatever that dude’s name is) working paper, and I want to know what your opinion is of the public health research at large. Is it largely biased? Does it really say guns make us less safe?


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