The Pseudoephedrine-Method of Gun Control

Pseudoephedrine Limits in the USA

The USA has laws limiting how much “over-the-counter” pseudoephedrine-containing decongestant people can buy. There are all sorts of problems with this law – non-drug-dealer grandmas being treated like drug dealers, limits that prevent families with children or disabled family members from buying enough pseudoephedrine for the whole family (in many states, you have to be 18 to purchase pseudoephedrine – and you can buy slightly more than the maximum allowable single-adult dose), and privacy concerns as people are put on national databases (run by commercial companies to exempt them from many of the privacy laws that apply to government search) to track their purchases.

The FDA hastily approved a substitute that simply doesn’t work.  While pseudoephedrine shows a clear difference from a placebo, the drug we’re supposed to be using instead of pseudoephedrine – phenylephrine – is basically indistinguishable from a sugar pill for treating congestion. That said, it’s a sugar pill with a ton of side-effects, including increasing blood pressure. As you may know, heart disease is one of the leading causes of death in the USA, so a non-effective pill that causes increased blood pressure simply shouldn’t be on the market.

In most places in the USA, the following laws apply (some states are stricter):

  • No more than 9.0g of pseudoephedrine (PSE) may be contained in products purchased by a single person in a 30 day period
  • No more than 3.6g of PSE contained in products may be purchased by a single person in a 24 hour period
  • Must present government-issued picture ID
  • Must consent to have information recorded and available to government and other third parties
  • Must be 18 or older

This is done for one reason: To make illegal methamphetime less available.

What does this have to do with gun control?

On Sunday, one of the worst mass shootings in recent history occurred in Florida, when a person decided to target members of the LGBT community.  At least 49 people died, and we may hear more died soon.  At least another 50 people was wounded physically in the shooting.  The psychological toll is surely much higher than that.

Of course one thing that is off-the-table to our authoritarian-minded government officials: gun control.  We can regulate the bedroom – Michigan lawmakers proposed a change to their sodomy law that would modify much of the language but keep oral and anal sex illegal – a felony offense. Yes, Michigan lawmakers don’t want to remove a law that allows for life in prison for a consensual blow job from the books (fortunately the law is considered unconstitutional by the courts, and, thus, can’t be used for much beyond harassment of consensual adults).

There is no place we see the authoritarian beliefs of our leaders more clearly than in combatting drug abuse. To protect people from themselves, we have gone to extraordinary measures and imposing restrictions on lawful users of legal products for the war on drugs. In fact, there is just one thing we’re unwilling to do: address the role of the gun in drug crime.

While we might have authoritarian leanings with drugs, guns are off-limits.  With guns, we’re told that guns are important – “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed” – according to the Second Amendment.  If we limit handguns, semi-automatics, assault rifles, large capacity magazines, certain types of bullets, or even advocate for technology that prevents a gun-owner’s gun from being used against him by someone else, we’re told that’s a slippery slope towards taking everyone’s guns away.

Well, I have a solution.  The pseudoephedrine regulations definitely impact people’s health – something arguably more important than, say, shooting beer bottles with your new gun.

Only Criminals will have Guns

One of the most common arguments against gun control is that criminals would own guns while law-abiding folk wouldn’t.  That’s one reason I don’t advocate gun control, but bullet control.  That aside, the meth problem that continues in our country shows that making something less available doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll be less available.

While the number of meth users seems to have declined since these laws have been passed (in 2012, the levels were estimated to be about 2/3rds what they were in 2006), the number of drug-related deaths continues to rise.  Not only did we not eliminate 2/3rds of the drug deaths, but we may have shifted drug users to other drugs (such as opioids).  Using the National Survey on Drug Use and Abuse, and ignoring the strange statistical spike in 2006 (roughly 350,000 estimated users in 2006 compared to 140,000 in 2005 and 160,000 in 2007 – the 2006 year’s numbers are thus highly suspect and are probably closer to 150,000 in reality), we see that heroin use was somewhat flat through 2007, when it suddenly took off.  That’s roughly the time the pseudoephedrine laws took effect.  Unfortunately, opioids appear even more deadly than meth.

So, what is different about guns?  Why won’t criminals just find another source?  There are two reasons for this:

  1. Unlike drugs, guns are not able to be manufactured and distributed in quantity from Latin America into the USA. Much of the meth now in use in the USA is from south of the border.  However, we’re the supplier of arms to Latin America.  Guns pose a much more significant challenge due to their bulk, complex and difficult manufacturing process, and the relative ease at which they can be detected, unlike highly concentrated drugs.  In fact, one of the reasons drug cartels send their drugs to the USA is to get guns in return – we likely would make a bigger dent in the drug war by dealing with guns than with drugs.
  2. There’s not a viable substitute weapon to a gun.  While a meth user might take up opioids if meth becomes hard to find, a criminal that turns to swords is a lot less of a threat to people than a criminal with a gun.


Guns Don’t Kill, People Do

Likewise, pseudoephedrine doesn’t kill, people who take too much meth are the ones that are dying.

Yet, because someone else might take meth, and we’ve decided that is a bad thing, worth protecting the person against, we make the precursor chemicals – which have legal and non-drug-abuse uses – difficult to procure.  We do this even when it has public health impact.

It is pretty much impossible to determine how many people in the USA die of meth overdoses – that data simply doesn’t appear to be collected or computed.  But we do know that approximately 47,000 people died in 2013 through all uses of drugs, both legal and illegal.  Many of these were surely suicide, accidental overdose, or unexpected drug interaction by non-recreational users.  When we look at drug use rates, what we can find for death rates, etc, we can expect that, at the upper end, several thousand people die from meth overdose per year in the USA.  It may be significantly less than that.

Yet we know approximately 20,000 people kill themselves with a gun and 10,000 people (same source) are victims of homicide via a gun.  Even if all 20,000 of the suicide victims would have found other mechanisms, many of the 10,000 homicide victims would be with us if guns were not available to the shooter.  Either way, that’s significantly more lives saved than we can hope to save through any war on meth, even if somehow we managed to eliminate all meth and all meth users simply gave up meth and all other illegal drugs.

If it’s important to stop drug deaths, why is it unimportant to stop gun deaths?

A Potential Solution

It’s simple: regulate bullets like decongestant.

  • 9.0 grams of gunpowder-type propellent per 30 days per adult.  Assuming a 5 grain load for a typical 9mm round, that’s 324mg of propellent per round.  Thus, an average gun owner could purchase 27 rounds per month.
  • Because buying large quantities at once is associated with danger of illicit use, no more than 3.6 grams in a 24 hour period. That is roughly 11 rounds. Of course you still can’t exceed the 27 rounds per month.
  • Purchasers must be 18
  • Purchasers must present government-issued ID
  • Purchasers must sign a statement that they will not use the rounds for undesirable purposes
  • Purchase history is stored in a private national database accessible to the federal and state government

It’s simple. I suspect this would, at the least, make mass shootings much more difficult, and impose on many legitimate gun owners the same type of one-size-fits-all approach that decongestants have now.

Or, perhaps, you could look at Australia’s model.

Disclaimer: I own guns. My first gun was given to me by my parent’s when I was in elementary school after I proved I could pass a gun safety course.  It was a Marlin Model 60 semi-automatic .22LR – one of the 18 round capacity models that is hard to find these days (due to capacity restrictions).  I’ve probably shot 50,000 rounds through that barrel, and who knows how many through the barrel of other guns. So please don’t pretend that I’m someone who has never fired a gun.

Right to Refuse Service

America is a country that values freedom, at least some of the time (drone strikes and stop-and-frisk programs excepted), including the key freedom of being able to decide who you will and won’t serve, if you run a business.  It’s the “right to refuse service.”

(My apologies to people outside the USA – I’m writing right now about a USA-specific issue)

A small-town business district.  Should these businesses be able to refuse service to a black man?  A Jewish person?  A disabled person?  A pregnant woman?  A trans person?  Note that none of these businesses to my knowledge does so, but I ask the question: Should a small business be allowed to discriminate?  When?  And when not?

A small-town business district. Should these businesses be able to refuse service to a black man? A Jewish person? A disabled person? A pregnant woman? A trans person? Note that none of these businesses to my knowledge does so, but I ask the question: Should a small business be allowed to discriminate? When? And when not?  (Picture by self)

But we also recognize that freedom has limits.

Just recently, a bar in Portland was fined $400,000 for attempting to refuse service to a trans support group.

This isn’t the first time a business has been prohibited from refusing service.  This tradition goes back some time.  For instance, we recognized in 1964, with the federal Civil Rights Act.   In Title II of the act, many types of businesses were regulated by the government – and told, like it or not, you have to serve black people too.  It didn’t matter that the business owners might have objected on religious or political or philosophical grounds.  They didn’t have a unilateral right to refuse service for any reason.  And anyone who tries to create that right today will be undoing Title II of the Civil Rights Act.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.  We need to start with the basics.  First, a business generally can refuse service.  There’s only a limited number of reasons why a business cannot.  A business can refuse service to an unruly customer.  A business can refuse service to someone who makes too little or too much money.  A business can refuse service on the basis of fingernail length or lack of shoes or color of a T-shirt in most cases.  A business can refuse service to people named Frank.  A business can refuse service to someone the owner just plain doesn’t like.

But what a business cannot do under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is to refuse service on the basis of race, color, religion, or national origin.  Other federal laws since then – and we’ll get to a some of this – extended that to creed, age (with limitations), sex, disability, and veteran’s status (with limitations).  So you can refuse to serve a black man coffee, but not because his race or color.  You need a non-protected reason to do so.

In 1964, shortly after passage, the law was challenged.  Among the arguments in the challenge, brought forth by the owner of the Heart Motel of Atlanta, were that the federal government cannot regulate local businesses that do not directly engage in interstate commerce (they argued that was a state power), and a violation of his right to liberty (fifth amendment) by refusing him this liberty, forcing him into involuntary servitude contrary to the 13th amendment (by forcing him to rent a room to someone).  In other words, he argued that not being able to exercise his right to refuse service was similar to slavery and a violation of his personal freedom.  That’s not very far off from the argument today about the right for businesses to refuse service to LGBT people.

Now, remember, prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 being enacted, segregation was prominent.  Whether it was “separate but equal” (outlawed in schools in the 50s, but not outlawed in businesses) accommodations or bans against serving blacks, racial discrimination in business was common.  The famous, “I have a Dream,” speech was delivered by Martin Luther King Jr. only one year earlier.

When this case reached the Supreme Court of the US, the court upheld the law – unanimously (albeit with several concurring opinions).  The desire of the hotel owner to refuse service could be regulated by congress, and congress had passed a law prohibiting such refusal on the basis of race or color.

Much later, in 1990, the Amercians with Disabilities Act passed.  This act applied to an even larger group of businesses than the 1964 Civil Rights Act – and prevented not only direct refusal of service, but also indirect refusal.  Businesses could not indirectly refuse access and were required to take “reasonable” steps (pardon the pun) to remove barriers, architectural or otherwise, that might prevent access.  This was wide-ranging, and included not only physical disabilities but mental, sensory, developmental, and psychological disabilities as well.

This, too, has been challenged and upheld.  A business not wanting to serve blind people cannot refuse service to a blind person!  That’s illegal.  Even if you have strong beliefs.

Now some would throw the Civil Rights Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act out the door.  They would say, “If I’m a business owner, I should be able to refuse service to gays.”  Now, the 1964 act didn’t apply to gays, but if a Federal act attempting to ban segregation was constitutional, a state act can be also, even if it applies to a different group of people.  But of course if there is a universal right to refuse service for discriminatory reasons, it would equally apply to race (there’s a question as to whether LGBT status should be treated similar to race, but that’s not the argument presented that I’m countering – the argument I’m countering is that a business owner should be able to decide who to serve, period; that said, I do believe LGBT status should be a protected status on par with race, sex, religion, disability, etc).

In the recent case, where a bar was fined $400,000 for harassment of trans customers (this is a form of refusal of service), the bar owner felt it his right to refuse service to whoever he wished.  However, his jurisdiction had laws that protect LGBT people from this type of discrimination.  Much like the Civil Rights Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act, they do not allow discrimination for some specific reasons – in this case, LGBT status.

The response online?  “He should be able to refuse whoever he wants.”

Of course one can see the need for regulation on refusal of service if one looks at a few types of businesses.

First, hospitals: imagine a for-profit hospital refusing to perform emergency care on the basis that someone is gay or black!  Unfortunately, this does happen, but not as commonly as it would without some non-discrimination laws that apply to health care.  Of course someone might say, “Well, that’s different.  This is life and death and they have a duty to keep people alive.  You might need a hospital, but you don’t need a bar.”

That may be true.  But of course, how do you define what businesses are needed and which one’s don’t perform a useful service?  And is the point really that there are other ways to handle this?

Let’s go a bit further and talk about government contractors.  First, what is a government contractor?  Let’s define it broadly as someone who does business with the government.  Should a company leasing a major toll road from the government (see the Indiana Tollway) be able to refuse service to gays?  Should a toll booth operator be able to ask, “Are you gay?” and charge a different rate if you are?  Or tell you to take a free road?  I think most people would say NO, they are getting money from government and need to operate in the public’s interest.

So, let’s take it a bit further.  Does this apply to anyone doing business with the government for services?  What about a pizza joint used by federal agents during a stakeout?  Obviously this gets messy.

The right solution is the same one we started for race and disability.  While we haven’t solved racial or disability discrimination, we’ve made progress and made the world more pleasant for people with disabilities and who are not of a certain race.  We’ve also restricted business owners’ rights to refuse service.  We decided that was a good thing to do then.  And it’s a good thing to do now.

The difference between race, disability, and LGBT rights is simple: almost everyone thinks racial discrimination is wrong.  Of course it wasn’t always that way, and in the 1960s, there was plenty of opposition to desegregation.  And in the 90s there was a lot more opposition to the idea that a business shouldn’t be able to fire a disabled person who could perform the job.  But times have changed.  So now people look back and generally support those laws – but it wasn’t always so.  I suspect the LGBT non-discrimination laws will be similar – you can see the tide changing, and you can see the people who aren’t ready to adapt clinging onto every possible reason to continue to discriminate.

Of course we’ll see objection after objection (such as the current religious ones) to LGBT rights.  But the question isn’t really a religious one (so, you want to refuse service to gays because they don’t value the sanctity of marriage, and you’ll do so by refusing to bake cakes, but you have no problem baking a divorce cake?) – it’s hard to claim a religious exemption if you are a business instead of a religion, and your discrimination looks more like targeting of one group than a general sincere desire to follow your religion.  Just as a hotel owner in 1964 claimed it was slavery to take money from black customers.