The tragic school shooting in Sandy Hook has become a catalyst for a national examination of gun violence.  Gun control advocates and the NRA have squared off with competing proposals.  The roles of untreated mental illness and video game violence have also been widely discussed.  But policy stemming from a focus on high profile events such as Columbine and Sandy Hook may miss the bigger violence picture.

Sandy Hook, as horrific as that shooting was, obscures the grinding, day to day gun violence that accounts for nearly 500 murders a year in Chicago and the thousands more across the country that never touch the public consciousness.   While mental illness, easy access to guns and gangs are all part of the larger picture, the primary element in the violence is the role of the illegal drug market.  It is drug related violence that is at the heart of the national body count and it is all the more tragic as the solution to it is within our grasp.

It is drug money that fuels the violence, that buys the guns, that provides the glue molding youth gangs.  Take drug revenue out of the picture and the violence will subside.  Where does the drug revenue come from?  Studies stay 90% of drug revenue is generated at the retail end of the drug chain, in hand-to-hand transactions on thousands of street corners across the country.  The bulk of that revenue stems from the drug traffickers’ cash cow, marijuana.   The step of moving marijuana from the illegal market to the legitimate, regulated market deprives traffickers of 60% of their revenue.  Think of it in business terms.  How many enterprises could withstand the loss of 60% of their revenue?

With marijuana buyers out of the picture, traffickers are dependent on drug addicts, their primary customer base.  How do we move addicts out of the illegal market?  We can jail them, an expensive proposition with little long-term impact.  Or we can treat them, moving them permanently out of the market.  Think of it in these terms.  If an addict today in almost any place in the country decides to seek treatment, their most likely option is to be put on a waiting list.  We need to re-frame the argument about treatment availability to a depiction of treatment as a battle against drug traffickers’ violence.  Every day an addict is taken away from the illegal market is a victory over the cartels.  Moving a significant number of these “best customers” out of the market will cause the illegal market to wither.

As the discussion on gun violence moves forward, drug policy reform should be an important part of the conversation.