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The inherent rationality of gun laws and nuclear disarmament

  • 10 October 2017


Gun massacres occur so often in the United States that we can almost predict our response. First, we are horrified by the scale of the violence and by the efficiency of its planning and execution. Then we begin to feel for the people killed and wounded, their relatives and friends and the communities that will be lastingly marked by it.

We then ask why it happened, and move to anger that legislators do not limit access to weapons. Finally, this murder slips from memory to be replaced in due time by another even worse.

This cycle of horror, sympathy, outrage, curiosity and forgetfulness prompts reflection on why there is no circuit breaker. And particularly, why is not anger sufficiently focused to restrict access to the tools of murder?

The most common explanation appeals to the strength of the National Rifle Association and its capacity to threaten the election of politicians opposed to its policies. This is undoubtedly an important factor, but it is decisive only because people accept its premises: that Americans live in a world peopled with enemies, that they have a right to own weapons, and that they need more powerful weapons than the villains who threaten their lives and property. Guns are not the problem, but people. And bad people needed to be deterred. According to this logic gun massacres do not argue against the right of citizens to be heavily armed but confirm it.

The logic of deterrence is rational within a mechanical framework, but when applied to human dealings it becomes irrational. That becomes clearer when we set the stalemate in the United States over the right to possess weapons alongside the conflict with North Korea over the development of nuclear weapons. The argument made by the United States and other nuclear powers for the possession of nuclear weapons is that they are necessary to deter potential aggressors. The capacity to use them for mass destruction ensures that they will not be used in practice. Seen from this perspective they are peacemakers.

This argument is conceptually neat. But its logic leads to nuclear proliferation. It encourages nations that feel threatened by other states armed with nuclear weapons to develop their own capacity to wage nuclear war. It is not surprising that the rulers of North Korea, having seen the destruction visited on Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria by various nuclear powers, should believe that their own security and peace depends