As shooting deaths continue to compile since the Newtown tragedy, the debate over gun control rages on, nearly encompassing every aspect of American society. While both sides have their points, the argument of the National Rifle Association’s chief executive officer, Wayne LaPierre, that “the only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun” sounds awfully familiar to a policy employed by the United States during the Cold War—with success—but is generally looked unfavorably upon.
Once the Soviet Union obtained the technology to develop nuclear weapons, demonstrated in 1949, the United States and the U.S.S.R. settled into an uneasy peace ensured by the concept of mutually assured destruction. This concept held that neither nation would risk attacking the other, because such an attack would result in the destruction of both countries. The mental image I hold of this policy is two individuals holding knives to each other’s throat. Neither individual can use their knife to attack the other, lest the other use his own knife.
The policy can be seen as a measured success, due to the lack of nuclear conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States during the Cold War. Despite this success, however, mutually assured destruction played a leading role in the atmosphere of fear prevalent in American society until the break-up of the U.S.S.R.
The comparisons between the N.R.A.’s vision of an armed society and mutually assured destruction are readily apparent. To echo LaPierre’s statement, the only thing which could stop a bad nation with nuclear arms was a good nation with nuclear arms. The idea that a criminal is less likely to attack an area if he or she fears that there will be armed resistance is very similar to the concept of nuclear mutually assured destruction. Of course, just as the policy did in the Cold War, this creates a sense of fear and paranoia where one would constantly be on edge, believing an armed attack is imminent.
The practicality of domestic mutually assured destruction can be called into question by following the evolution of its nuclear counterpart. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the usefulness of mutually assured destruction waned. The United States no longer had a geopolitical foe which possessed nuclear arms. While it is true that Russia has maintained possession of Soviet arms, tensions between Russia and America have never deteriorated enough that either nation would consider a nuclear strike. Even as the “nuclear club” expanded to include Pakistan, India, Israel, and North Korea, the United States has little to fear in way of a nuclear attack by a geopolitical entity. North Korea is the biggest exception, but it is debated whether or not the nation has the capacity to reach the North American continent.
Instead, if America is attacked through the use of a nuclear weapon, it is likely to come from a terrorist organization in the form of a dirty bomb or a nuclear warhead obtained illicitly from a nuclear armed nation, such as Pakistan, North Korea, or, in the near future, Iran. The problem with this possibility is that, since terrorist organizations lack a geopolitical space, the policy of mutually assured destruction is inapplicable. Imagine a scenario in which a dirty bomb, fabricated by al-Qaeda, is detonated in Times Square. Naturally, the American government would respond with extreme prejudice. But as al-Qaeda lacks a political state, nuclear arms would almost have to be completely ruled out as a possibility.
In a similar vein, the concept of domestic mutually assured destruction, embodied by the notion that guns stop guns, is not applicable to most instances of mass shootings. The majority of these mass shootings are conducted by mentally unstable individuals who are unlikely to care if they get killed during their horrific endeavor.
To return to LaPierre’s statement, and its foreign policy counterpart, we can see that, as history shows us, there is a better policy solution than mutually assured destruction. That solution is disarmament. While the claim that the only thing which stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun sounds plausible, it is incorrect in its presumption that there is only one possible fix. Interestingly enough, the Republican Party perfectly highlights how there is another potential solution to stopping a bad individual with a weapon.
This can even be seen in the rhetoric of the Republicans with regards to the debate over Iran and its growing nuclear potential. The party argues that if Iran becomes nuclear armed, it will commit a horrific act, often labeled as the destruction of Israel. The only way to stop this, Republicans claim, is to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons at all costs. Or, in other words, the only thing to stop a bad nation with nuclear arms is to stop that nation from getting nuclear arms. Curiously, the fact that Israel (a “good” nation in the eyes of the G.O.P.) possesses nuclear weapons does not seem to play a factor in the equation at all for Republicans. This is likely because, they would claim, Iran is led by a crazy, homicidal government which does not care that Israel, the likely target, could strike back.
Yet domestically, the Republican Party adheres to the polar opposite argument. Nothing stops a rogue individual with a gun better than other individuals with guns, but the only way to stop a nation from using nuclear weapons is to prevent them from obtaining them. In fact, the best way to ensure peace, domestically and internationally, is the latter option.
During the Cold War mutually assured destruction was an unfortunate, yet necessary, policy to ensure international peace. Domestically, however, we should not settle on such a fear-inducing approach, especially not when there are better options available. When the only way to prevent a violent act is by threatening violence, society has arrived at a dark place. While this unfortunately appears to be the track America is currently on, we ought to try to avail ourselves of better solutions which do not add to the blood running down our streets.