Today I was having a debate with somebody on the Internet about gun control, and it led me to do some research that I found interesting enough to share.
I brought up the fact that Chicago had banned handguns for decades and was still swimming in them, to which he replied that making handguns illegal doesn't mean anything if people are allowed to bring them in from outside. "There are no police checkpoints where they check for handguns," and so on.
I said that it was illegal to possess an unregistered handgun and that Chicago didn't allow anyone to register handguns, so people weren't actually allowed to bring them into the city legally. I also pointed out that he had just conceded that a handgun ban is ineffective without some serious police-state apparatus, to which he replied that you could just ban them nationwide and not have to worry about police checkpoints in your cities. You could have checkpoints at the border, and pretend that we can't just make handguns with our huge stockpile of machine tools.
But how well does that approach work, really? He insists it would work, I say it wouldn't, nobody has any evidence to present against his hypothetical scenario. At least, that's how it would play out if I weren't totally freaking awesome. I finally found a productive use for the War on Drugs: providing a quantitative measure of just how much the government sucks at stopping contraband.
Here's where the research comes in. I picked 2012 as the year for grabbing my data, because it's pretty recent but no so recent that the various public agencies haven't gotten around to publishing their annual reports (which often show up halfway through the next year, or later).
The Federal government commissioned the RAND corporation, a research institute, to estimate the size of the illegal drug market in the United States. Well, part of it, since they just focused on four major drugs: marijuana, cocaine (including crack), heroin, and meth. They came up with (paraphrasing here) "About $108 billion, give or take we-don't-know-how-much, in 2010 dollars."
Unfortunately their data didn't go to 2012. Two years shouldn't make that much difference, and the tendency is for markets to grow with time rather than shrink, so this is gives the DEA two years worth of wiggle room. I couldn't find 2010 data on DEA drug seizures because the DEA website is worthless (more on that in a bit).
So now that we have a ballpark figure for the street value of the illegal drug trade in the US (part of it, anyway), we can check with the DEA and see what the street value of all the drugs they confiscated in 2012 is, thus giving us a reasonable estimate of what percentage of illegal drugs make it to market vs getting found and confiscated by various police forces reporting their statistics to the DEA.
It turns out that the answer to this question is: basically nothing. In 2012 the DEA reported to Congress that they confiscated $2.8 billion (in 2012 dollars, natch) related to drug busts, of which $750 million was cash. So, with some generous rounding (what's $50 million in government figures, anyway?), they snagged $2.1 billion worth of drugs and non-cash property in 2012. This figure includes cars, homes, ships, airplanes, pretty much anything owned by drug dealers or smugglers (they actually bagged a submarine back in 2006, one out of apparently many). But since the DEA didn't say how much of the loot was actually drugs, and how much of the drugs were the type of drugs that we were including in our estimate of the total size of the drug market, we'll have to just give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that the whole non-cash take was drugs, specifically of the type that we were including before. At every step we are giving the DEA the benefit of the doubt because even with all of those unrealistically favorable estimates, they still only confiscate about 2% of the drugs. In reality, it's probably half that or less, but it really doesn't matter since we've got so much room to overestimate their effectiveness without actually making them seem like they are making a difference.
I tried pulling up the data from the DEA website, but it is a useless pit of spin and back-patting that didn't even have data on the street value of the drugs they confiscated. I suppose that the DEA providing this data alongside estimates of how large the drug trade is would show people just how ineffective the DEA is at actually reducing the illegal drug trade. Instead, they are busy doing things like trumpeting the decline in cocaine use over the last few years and ignoring the data that suggests that crackheads have just moved on to other drugs instead. Government websites are usually pretty good about disseminating useful data, but the DEA website seems less focused on dissemination and more interested on dissimulation. Specifically, trying to show that the DEA isn't ridiculously ineffective. If I could make comparisons to the street value of the drugs they seized, I would. They list some kind of vague quantities (how much is a "hallucinogenic dose" exactly?) but don't really go into detail about how much it's all worth. The difficulty in comparing data isn't entirely their fault; the RAND study should have listed quantities instead of just street value, but since their reporting doesn't reek of disingenuous attempts at obfuscation I'm willing to give them a pass on the inconvenience.
So then, now that we have established that the odds of the DEA intercepting drugs before they are consumed are, at best, about 50 to 1 against, even with their casual disregard for civil liberties (they'll send a SWAT team to kick in your door based on nothing more than an anonymous tip, which has led to the practice of Swatting people you don't like, or just for jollies) we can start making guesses about how effective they would be at intercepting smuggled weapons.
My guess is: not very. Guns are usually made of commonly used polymers and steel, so new guns tend to smell like the things you would smuggle them in. Dogs can sniff out gunpowder, allowing them to find a gun that has been fired, but new guns (and properly cleaned guns) don't smell like that. Drugs are produced in conditions that serve no other purpose; a meth lab is obviously used for producing meth, an underground hydroponics farm is obviously used for growing pot, and so on. Guns are produced with machine tools that have a huge variety of legal uses, so finding out that somebody has a machine shop in his garage isn't proof that he's a black market gunsmith. Even low-explosives like gunpowder have legal uses; fireworks and such. If 3D printing advances to the point where we can make guns that don't suck (because we can already 3D print crappy guns), the source of guns will only get harder to contain.
All of this adds up to guns, particularly handguns, being a lot harder to deal with as contraband, but even if by some miracle the government was able to increase the effectiveness of a "War on Guns" by a factor of ten compared to its War on Drugs, it'd still only be getting about one out of five. Chicago's decades-long effort to ban handguns was ineffective (until it was put out of its misery by the Supreme Court in 2010, on 2nd Amendment grounds), and expanding that policy nationwide, even if it weren't a blatant violation of the 2nd Amendment, would likely be no more effective than the War on Drugs has been.
A ban on guns would serve much the same purpose as the ban on drugs: to make a fretful populace feel like politicians are "doing something" about the situation, no matter how futile those efforts may be.