by Ari Armstrong
The following article originally appeared at Boulder Weekly on August 5, 2004.
Bob Schaffer, who is competing with Pete Coors for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate, would have voted to send 18- to 20-year-old soldiers to Iraq to fight, risk death and perhaps get their limbs blown off in battle. Yet Schaffer wants to deny these adults their right to purchase their beverage of choice once they get home.
As local papers reported, Schaffer attacked Coors during a debate based on Coors' 1997 remarks to USA Today: "Maybe the answer is lowering the drinking age so that kids learn to be responsible about drinking at a younger age. I'm not an advocate of trying to get people to drink, but kids are drinking now anyway. All we've done is criminalize them."
Colorado Conservative Voters, a group headed by former Sen. Bill Armstrong, ran ads attacking Coors for supporting a lower drinking age, as the AP noted.
I asked Schaffer what he thinks about 18- to 20-year-olds buying guns. He replied, "Certain specific military-issue weaponry can only be obtained for civilian use through special permits. Additionally some 18- to 20-year-olds, such as convicted felons, mentally ill, foreign nationals and those who have renounced U.S. citizenship currently cannot purchase firearms. With these exceptions, the Second Amendment applies to all adult U.S. citizens." In other words, Schaffer wants an 18-year-old to be able to buy a semiautomatic battle rifle (which requires no "special permit"), but not a beer.
Mike Miles, the Democrat competing with Ken Salazar for his party's nomination, was the strongest on the drinking age: "I believe the drinking age should be 18. We trust young men and women to vote at 18 and to fight in war; I think we could trust them to drink responsibly. Certainly some will abuse the privilege, but no more than those who already drink illegally."
Miles did not directly answer my question about whether 18- to 20-year-olds should be able to buy guns. Instead, he said, "I think all adults should be prevented from purchasing certain types of firearms. I own a gun and support an individual's right to bear arms. However, there are some weapons that should not be in the public domain, as they are too lethal."
At least Miles wants to violate the rights of all adults equally; he does not discriminate against any group.
Salazar believes, "President Bush made a persuasive case that Iraq presented an imminent threat to our national security," though adds, "Bush committed a grave mistake in how he pulled the trigger of war."
Salazar wants to keep the drinking age at 21. Concerning firearms, he said, "In August of 1999É both Governor Bill Owens and I recommended raising from 18 to 21 years old the age for purchasing firearms at gun shows."
In other words, old enough to fight in war, but not old enough to decide what to drink or how to defend one's family.
Coors did not reply to my questions, despite numerous requests.
None of the candidates thinks the federal government should use highway funding to influence state policies. However, Schaffer pretends the drinking-age law was passed in Colorado in 1987 only because the legislature thought it was a good idea. As the American Medical Association summarizes, "Resistance from other states, and concern that minors would travel across state lines to purchase and consume alcohol, prompted the federal government in 1984 to enact the Uniform Drinking Age Act, which mandated reduced federal transportation funds to those states that did not raise the MLDA [minimum legal drinking age] to 21."
I attended a 1998 legislative hearing when State Sen. Ron Tupa (then in the House) introduced a bill to let 18- to 20-year-olds purchase beer with 3.2 percentage alcohol by weight with some restrictions. A main objection raised was the fear of lost highway dollars.
Colorado data suggested alcohol-related fatalities were in decline before and after the higher drinking age was imposed. Nationally, various researchers have found a small correlation between a higher drinking age and fewer traffic fatalities, yet I'm not convinced the correlation proves causation. I suspect laws raising or lowering the drinking age through the '70s and '80s accompanied various other cultural trends that accounted both for the laws and the fatality rates.
The debate over statistics misses the broader issue: In a free society, we do not infringe upon the rights of an entire class of people because a small fraction of that class behaves criminally. Instead, the proper legal response is to deal directly with the criminal behavior of the few.
The general theory for limiting the freedoms of minors is that they aren't sufficiently rational to practice all their rights. For example, they can't get married, sign contracts, etc. However, at age 18, people are recognized by the government as having full legal responsibility for their actions. They can sign contracts, fight in war and be charged criminally as adults.
If a politician will violate the right of an adult to purchase his or her beverage of choice, there is no logical limit to the number of other rights the politician will be willing to violate. If we don't even have the right to control our own bodies in peaceable ways, we can hardly be said to have any rights at all.