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A martini and a magnum are not alike

Prior to the repeal of the 21st Amendment, alcohol consumption per person was about two thirds of its pre-prohibition level.

“Prohibition of alcohol was a failure,” they say—and many use this premise to conclude that attempts to implement nationwide bans on other substances or artifacts will also fail. In the wake of the Newtown tragedy, there have been renewed calls to ban or curtail ownership of certain classes of weapons and ammunition. Of the proposals on the table, the most likely to pass is a reincarnation of the Assault Weapons Ban. Some have gone further, calling for a repeal of the Second Amendment and the implementation of a Great-Britain-style set of laws surrounding gun ownership.

Arguments against gun control sometimes run along the lines of “laws restricting gun ownership only stop law-abiding citizens from owning guns, they don’t stop bad guys,” or “prohibition doesn’t work—killers will always find a way,” and generally ending up with some variant of the conclusion that strict gun control laws would actually increase gun violence. If we were to trust the NRA, perhaps the only way to bring down the already tiny rate of gun violence in Poland or South Korea would be to make all firearms there legal, and give guns to all Polish and Korean teachers.

But alcohol and guns, and for that matter marijuana and guns, are very different objects—and lessons learned from the prohibition of intoxicating substances may not be the best guide for understanding firearms. Guns are more like ivory; evidence suggests that the 1989 global ban on the ivory trade was indeed successful at decreasing poaching of endangered elephants, and that the quantity of ivory demanded in the United States plummeted. Instead of looking to the failure of alcohol prohibition in assessing the effectiveness of restrictions on gun ownership, we should ask ourselves what we could learn from the success of the ivory ban. Here’s what guns and ivory have in common:

Neither guns nor ivory can be easily manufactured using cheap materials in one’s basement or backyard.

All you need to make moonshine is corn meal, sugar, copper pipe, water and a few pots and pans. I can’t say with certainty what raw materials and light machinery you would need to manufacture a semi-automatic rifle, but I can say with certainty that even if I asked every resident of my apartment, we couldn’t rustle together all the stuff we’d need in an afternoon. A pretty crafty amateur can make a potato cannon, but your average Joe would not have been able to assemble Adam Lanza’s AR-15, capable of firing 45 rounds a minute. It shouldn’t surprise us that alcohol and marijuana proliferate even when they are banned, given that they require little capital equipment, expertise or space to produce. If private gun ownership were banned, it’d be a different story.

Neither guns nor ivory have thriving unregulated markets in other nations.

In many U.S. states, individuals can legally purchase an unlimited number of firearms at one time. It shouldn’t surprise us that over two-thirds of guns seized by authorities, guns that are fueling the brutal armed conflict in Mexico, come from gun dealers in United States. The black market in Mexico feeds off our legal and loosely regulated market. The prohibition of alcohol tells us that, where there is no legal market for a good, a black market will flourish. But for many goods, especially those that require technical expertise to produce, the existence of a black market is parasitic off a legal market. Put simply, if private sales of guns were banned in the United States, where would the black market guns come from? Guns, relative to illicit drugs, would be comparatively difficult to smuggle into the United States, in large part because there are few nations where guns are easy to acquire en masse. The nation’s existing capital stock of guns would last for a long time—but though guns are durable goods, bullets are not; in fact, former Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of Illinois famously estimated that the United States only has a three-year supply of bullets.

Nancy Lanza was a “law-abiding citizen,” and Adam Lanza was a “law-abiding citizen” until the day he killed 27, including himself, at Sandy Hook. In a nation where gun massacres happen with tragic regularity, it seems to me that we have a lot to fear from “law-abiding citizens” with firearms. One expert on crime gun patterns with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) reports that one of the most common sources of guns used in crimes is the illegal resale of a legally purchased gun. We also know that many gun deaths, whether suicide, homicide or accidental, result from individuals firing guns that they or their family members purchased legally, as in the case of Sandy Hook. There may be ideological reasons for protecting the Second Amendment, but it is clear to me that adopting laws like those found in the world’s other wealthy democracies—like forbidding bulk sales, sharply limiting individual ownership and banning the most deadly assault weapons—would dramatically curtail our nation’s epidemic of gun violence.

Elena Botella is a Trinity senior. Her column runs every Thursday. You can follow Elena on Twitter @elenabotella.