Gun violence has dropped dramatically over the last 20 years. However, it is still a serious problem that affects thousands of lives each year. The tragedy in a Connecticut school has brought the issue to the forefront of our nation. Extremists on both sides are taking advantage of this terrible event and are using emotions and fear to further their own agendas.

Let's step back a moment and put gun violence in context.

6,200 homicides were committed with handguns in 2011, and 450 people were killed by rifles. There were also 1,800 murders with knives, 900 with hands and feet, and 675 with blunt objects. There are an average of 20 people killed in mass shootings each year. In comparison, there are 33,000 fatal auto accidents, 11,000 drunk driving deaths and 98,000 deaths caused by medical errors in hospitals each year.

What can realistically be done to reduce gun violence in America? Adding new restrictions to the thousands of gun laws already on the books would make little difference. I propose looking at our history to see if an answer can be found to the problem of gun violence.

When the prohibition of alcohol was passed in 1919, the murder rate in our nation doubled, from five to 10 murders per 100,000 people. Criminal gangs sought to control the illegal alcohol market and the vast sums of money that came with it. To defend their illegal businesses, they killed their competitors and innocent bystanders. After prohibition was repealed, the murder rate dropped in half. There was no illegal market to fight over, and people were no longer being gunned down in the street over alcohol. The government regulated and taxed alcohol, and by the 1940s the gangs were greatly diminished.

Today, the Department of Justice estimates one-third of homicides are drug related. Just this week, four people were shot in a drug house in Midvale. Criminal gangs grow rich by controlling the illegal drug market through violence. Our nation grows poorer by throwing millions of users into prison, with little effect on the flow of drugs.

What if we could decriminalize some types of drugs? We could starve the drug dealers of money, make space in our overcrowded prisons for violent offenders, and greatly reduce the drive-by shootings, murders and gang activity related to the never-ending drug war.

Prohibition didn't work in the 1920s and by any measure it has failed today. Instead of more ineffective gun restrictions, why not eliminate what people are killing each other over? A responsible and just society owes it to the thousands that are killed each year to find a better way.

Aaron Gabrielson is the chairman of the Wasatch County Republican Party.