I'm almost starting to feel sympathy for the "gun nuts."
You know what I mean: Those guys who simply have to own an AK-47, a couple of grenade launchers and an assortment of James Bond-ish handguns with no conceivable use except to shoot human beings. But still they argue, "Guns don't kill people. People kill people."
That's how I'm beginning to feel about sinus remedies. I'm pondering a bumper sticker: "Sudafed doesn't kill people. People kill people."
In recent months the exploding methamphetamine crisis has sparked a stampede to control access to pseudoephedrine, the active ingredient in Sudafed and its various generic knockoffs that bring clarity to the sinuses of the afflicted. Pseudoephedrine also makes certain allergy medicines, such as Claritin, work better for many stuffy-nose sufferers, putting the decongestant "D" in Claritin-D, and makes possible "daytime" cold compounds that don't put you to sleep. Unfortunately for the law-abiding snifflers of the world, pseudoephedrine is also an essential ingredient in the manufacture of methamphetamine. Meth-lab operators extract it from otherwise innocent Sudafed and use it to ruin people's lives instead of to clear their sinuses.
Until recently, the pharmaceutical industry stood firm against efforts to pull pseudoephedrine behind the pharmacy counter. Now, fearing an impossible patchwork of state laws, the drug makers have folded and are calling for federal regulation. Retail chains, starting with Target, have begun taking the pills off their shelves. (Sam's Club, the warehouse-shopping offshoot of Wal-Mart, has long limited the number of pseudoephedrine-containing pills you can buy, treating customers like drug-running pariahs if you unwittingly put one too many boxes in your cart.) Even the maker of Sudafed, the best-known pseudoephedrine brand, has joined the call for regulation—not, please note, out of civic duty but because the company has a pseudoephedrine-free Sudafed in the pipeline that could gobble up all the newly emptied shelf space from its competitors.
Most proposals call for pseudoephedrine to be available only at the pharmacy counter. Though you wouldn't need a prescription, you would have to show ID and your purchase would be logged. Oklahoma, where such rules have been put into place, has already made a serious dent in its meth problem.
None of my whining here is meant to minimize the seriousness of the methamphetamine craze, which is ruining lives from coast to coast in frightening numbers while fueling a crime wave by addicts desperate to buy the stuff. If pseudoephedrine is swept behind the pharmacy counter, I will dutifully go through the extra hassle as a good citizen, doing my part in the war against drugs by standing in line and being treated with just a bit of suspicion: Does he really have a stuffy nose, or is he running a meth lab?
Since 9/11 in particular, these insults to civilized life seem to have become routine. A bunch of Islamic terrorists uses commercial jetliners to do terrible things, so thereafter we must all—children, little old ladies in wheelchairs, blind men—be scrutinized and humiliated at airports. Meanwhile, the real bad guy—Osama bin Laden, remember him?—skips away. Every time you or I take off our shoes to pass through an airport metal detector, Bin Laden must be chuckling at what he's wrought.
Similarly, as I wrote about in mind-numbing depth in our February issue (still reading? that's OK, we'll wait. . .), random highway checkpoints are singularly ineffective at apprehending drunk drivers. But the attendant publicity does scare some people and thus improve New Mexico's horrendous DWI statistics. So, once again, society dictates that the innocent should be dealt with as though they're guilty, our rights under the Fourth Amendment treated like toilet paper, for the general good. Score another one for the bad guys: They're still drunk out of their minds, hitting the highway, while you and I are undergoing the sort of Soviet-style treatment that led President Reagan to demand, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall."
It's not just a few pills, roadblocks and airport frisking, moreover. The Patriot Act lets our government snoop into which library books we're checking out, the better (supposedly) to protect us from terrorists. If they want federal funds, those same libraries must install blocking software on their computers to shield young patrons from pornography (software that neither successfully blocks all porn nor blocks only porn—try looking up "breast cancer"). We all invest time and money to keep our own computers free of spam, viruses and worms—supporting a whole segment of the software industry—and yet the Viagra offers keep getting through. The perverts and the spammers, just like the terrorists, keep bending our lives in response to their actions. Who's in charge here?
Bit by bit, the black-hat wearers are winning. Not merely by their toll on actual victims, but by the degradation of civilized society and the eroding of our liberties.
Gun-lovers, I imagine, might make the same argument about gun-toting criminals. By using otherwise innocent "Saturday night specials" to hold up liquor stores, these miscreants are spoiling it for everyone. Since certain weapons simply don't have a benign purpose, of course, it's still hard for me to fully equate Sudafed and handguns, but I'm trying to put myself on the other side of the trigger here, OK? (However you feel about guns, though, isn't it a bit odd that society can more readily mobilize to restrict little red sinus pills than assault rifles?)
But this is not a problem that lends itself to knee-jerk answers, either liberal or conservative. Liberals, believing that people are basically good and it's government's job to help people who often cannot help themselves, can readily rationalize rules that impose on the law-abiding for the good of the whole. Conservatives, believing that people are basically bad, can happily sign on for various restrictions to protect the law-abiding, even at their expense (apparently except, as noted, when it comes to weaponry). Even libertarians, believing that government should butt the heck out, would thereby leave us at the mercy of a whole array of bad guys.
Nor is this a dilemma we can simply wish away, any more than those bumper stickers urging fellow motorists to "Visualize World Peace" have led to global disarmament. The bad guys are real, the meth labs do exist, as much I might wish otherwise, my sinus pills can be put to real harm.
So I'll stand in line at the drugstore, even though I've done nothing wrong. I'll take off my shoes at the airport and dutifully pad through the metal detector in my sock feet, though 15 seconds with Google would easily demonstrate that I'm less likely to be hiding a bomb in my Nikes than, say, the twitchy young Arabic fellow behind me whose student visa expired three months ago. I'll be polite and deferential to the state patrolman who stops my car with no probable cause to inquire if I've had anything to drink tonight. I'll update my virus software and my spam filters.
But let's not continue down this road without recognizing the costs, to us as individuals and to the fabric of our society. Let's not make-believe that yanking sinus pills off the shelves is the right thing to do—only the necessary thing. Let's not pretend that the bad guys don't have the whip hand.
Maybe I'd better run out and buy an assault rifle, while I still can. If only these darned sinuses didn't make it hard to squint through the gunsight.
David A. Fryxell is editor of Desert Exposure. He tried to buy that extra box of Claritin-D only by mistake, honest!