Thinking the 'Unthinkable'

December 11, 1993|By GLENN McNATT

A few days ago, during a casual conversation with a teen-ageboy who lives in the neighborhood, the subject of guns and drugs came up.

My young informant mentioned a friend of his whom I had met, then nonchalantly added, ''He can get a gun any time he `D wants.''

It turned out the young man's friend knew people who occasionally employed him as a low-level runner in their business, which was selling drugs. Apparently they lend him a handgun whenever they require his services. After the job, he returns the weapon to its owner along with the cash and unsold merchandise.

I thought of that conversation this week when President Clinton's surgeon general, Joycelyn Elders, wrapped herself in controversy by suggesting that decriminalizing drugs could help make America's streets safer.

The outcry against Ms. Elders tentative statement was predictable. She was excoriated for daring even to voice voice such a radical proposal. The spectacle reminded me of a scene out of a George Orwell novel in which the protagonist winds up pilloried for ''thought crimes.'' Ms. Elders was being punished, in effect, for thinking the unthinkable.

(The ''unthinkable,'' as a matter of fact, used to refer the musings of weapons strategists imagining the consequences of a limited nuclear exchange between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union. For some reason, that was regarded as an infinitely more respectable pursuit that trying to imagine ways to reduce the daily carnage on America's streets, but don't ask me why.)

The White House lost no time in emphatically denying that Ms. Elders' remarks reflected administration policy -- an oddly incongruous canard, given the fact that only last October President Clinton's chief drug policy adviser, Lee Brown, unveiled with great fanfare a ''new'' drug strategy calling for a ''controlled shift of emphasis'' away from interdiction and arrests and toward prevention and treatment.

Ms. Elders, of course, is no stranger to controversy. Perhaps that is because she also has talked to teen-agers who have friends who know people who can supply guns and drugs. Apparently she has realized, as her critics have not, that guns and drugs together fuel the violence that has turned so many urban neighborhoods into war zones.

Given this relationship, there obviously is only one logical solution to the problem: Either legalize guns and drugs or ban them both outright.

Surely if firearms were completely unavailable the drug trade would go on, as would the violence, but the level of lethality would decline. Firearms-related violence accounts for the vast majority of fatalities in the current homicide epidemic. You can't take out an entire street corner with a bow-and-arrow or a switchblade.

Ban the manufacture, importation and sale of all guns and there will be fewer homicides, drug-related or otherwise. It's only logical.

Of course, this will never happen. At this stage of the game disarming America is both politically and practically impossible. There simply are too many guns out there already and Americans are far too fond of them ever to give them up willingly.

But since Americans apparently possess an appetite for drugs at least equal to their love for firearms, it seems counterproductive to treat treat them so differently in the law.

If drugs were as readily available as firearms -- I use the hypothetical purely as a way of illustrating the argument; in fact, drugs already are nearly as available, though not legally -- the competition over turf and market share among criminal gangs that fuels the current homicide epidemic would evaporate instantly.

Ms. Elders knows that firearms-related violence represents one of the most serious public-health problems confronting Americans today. She also realizes that drug addiction is fundamentally a public-health issue rather than a criminal-justice matter. The vaunted ''war on drugs'' has been an ignominious failure.

Yet, curiously, the people most opposed to decriminalizing drugs also are apt to be the staunchest foes of restricting the availability of firearms. In effect, they want to have their cake and eat it, too.

That's not logical, and it takes the courage of someone like Ms. Elders to stand up and say so. She is one of the few people in authority willing to publicly declare that what is truly ''unthinkable'' are the consequences for this country if we continue to hold to such contradictory, self-defeating policies.

Glenn McNatt writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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