Nuclear Weapons and Guns: Comrades in Arms


A nuclear weapon and a gun may be far apart on the arms spectrum, but they’re more alike than not. They’re both designed to kill by setting off detonations – one massive, the other miniaturized. Both depend, also to different degrees, on deterrence for their effectiveness. What’s more, the imperative to “go forth and propagate” seems to inform both nuclear proliferation and the profusion of guns. But nuclear disarmament and gun control are difficult to enact in the United States because nuclear-weapons advocates and pro-gun campaigners twist the law, in the form of treaties and the Constitution, to their own ends.

Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) calls for negotiations on “measures relating to nuclear disarmament,” as well as “a treaty on general and complete disarmament” (an umbrella term that covers conventional weapons and the arms trade, as well as nuclear weapons). While nuclear disarmament and gun control run on different tracks, it might be useful to compare and contrast them in hopes of shunting nuclear weapons and guns to the same rail yard. Once there – if on timetables reflecting their force differential – they can finally be decommissioned.

Deterrence, which holds that keeping your enemies at bay requires arming yourself with weapons equal to or more powerful than theirs, is the official raison d’etre of the U.S. nuclear-weapons program. It works less well for private citizens defending hearth and home because, by law, we’re denied military-grade weapons such as rocket launchers. Also, since your neighbor may not know what weapons you’ve stockpiled, the other requirement for effective deterrence – that one’s arsenal be public knowledge – can’t be met.

But guns would become more effective deterrents if their advocates were to succeed in their quest to impose their interpretation of the Second Amendment on the courts. In their eyes, it guarantees the right to possess weapons of sufficient strength to fend off the state in the event it attempts to exert absolute power. Also, with those weapons legal, gun owners could make their presence in their arsenals known.

Regarding the proliferation of nuclear weapons, it’s been substantially curbed thanks to the NPT. Along with the United States, the other nuclear-weapon states that signed the NPT maintain them mainly as deterrents. But states that succumbed to the urge to proliferate without signing (Israel, India, and Pakistan) or that withdrew from the NPT (North Korea) seem more disposed to view nuclear weapons as offensive weapons as well as deterrents. Equally as alarming, according to a September 2012 Ploughshares Fund report, over the next decade, the U.S. nuclear-weapons program will account for approximately $640 billion of the federal budget. Does anyone really believe that funding it in perpetuity instead of disarming, as required by the NPT, is lost on non-nuclear-weapons states, such as Iran, which are expected to observe the letter of the nonproliferation law?

The profusion of guns, meanwhile, has been more difficult to rein in because of their ubiquity and affordability. Furthermore, the logic of nonproliferation is lost on many gun owners, who see it as limiting their ability to defend themselves on a playing field tilted to criminals and the mentally ill, many of whom obtain guns illegally.

As for a treaty such as the NPT, nuclear-weapon states that signed pay little more than lip service to its articles when they don’t dovetail with their defense policies. First, they ignore Article IV, which recognizes the inalienable right of the treaty’s signatories to nuclear energy and to either enrich uranium or purchase it on an international market. True, the article turned out to be, in the words of former International Atomic Energy Agency director Mohamed ElBaradei, the “Achilles’ heel” of the NPT because enrichment and reprocessing are dual-use technologies capable of fulfilling military roles. But Western nuclear powers refuse to acknowledge the inequity presented by denying a signatory such as Iran enrichment.

Second, the aforementioned Article VI requires that each signatory “undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating” to achieve the disarmament cited above. Even though the International Court of Justice concluded in 1996 that the phrase “and bring to a conclusion” is implied by “pursue negotiations,” its absence tempts nuclear-weapon advocates, such as a George W. Bush-administration official, to pretend that making conclusion binding wasn’t an unrealistic goal to insert into a treaty that was already ahead of its times. Acting as if “and catch” isn’t implied by “pursue” is legalism at its most petty.

Yet, another Bush administration official maintained that “general and complete disarmament” doesn’t hinge on concluding the negotiations for a final nuclear-disarmament treaty first. Obviously, general and complete disarmament is not in the cards for another millennium, while many believe nuclear disarmament attainable within a century. A major overhaul of the NPT can’t help but lend some much-needed clarity to the issue of enrichment and the extent to which nonproliferation and disarmament depend on each other.

Meanwhile, gun advocates seek to appropriate the Constitution to their own purposes by lobbying for a reinterpretation of the Second Amendment. To help citizens defend themselves against a despot, the Second Amendment guaranteed the right to bear arms to state militias, though not individuals. But, when the National Rifle Association (NRA) rose to prominence in the 1970s, it mounted a campaign to extend Second Amendment rights to individuals.

Towards that end, in 2002, a Cato Institute fellow filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a District of Columbia law forbidding residents from owning handguns. In a qualified victory for gun advocates on the case known as District of Columbia v. Heller, the Supreme Court held that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to possess a firearm for such purposes as self-defense within the home.

NRA Chief Wayne LaPierre has made defense against autocracy a linchpin of gun rights. In the wake of the Newtown school shooting, he told a Senate Judiciary Committee that “our Founding Fathers,” who had “lived under the tyranny of King George … wanted to make sure that these free people in this new country would never be subjugated again.” Of President Obama, LaPierre wrote: “Many people are, indeed, warning about tyranny ‘lurking just around the corner.’ ” But even a nominal rebellion would require automatic firearms and other weapons, such as surface-to-air missiles, which were upheld as illegal by Heller.

Nevertheless, since that decision, gun advocates act as if they’re playing with house money. Realistically, the ability to protect themselves from a totalitarian government isn’t a goal that they believe they can achieve. But, along with opposing universal background checks, it does push the envelope of gun rights which, snapped back into shape by reality, still leaves gun advocates with their lowest common denominator – an “AR-15 in our home, and a 30-round mag to go with it.”

The path to security is fraught with danger

Ultimately, a significant drawdown of nuclear-weapon stockpiles and gun arsenals can’t be achieved until we accept two principles. One, the harder we try to slam shut our window of vulnerability, the more likely it is to spring back open. Two, leaving a safer world to future generations requires that we summon up the courage to take a leap of faith.

Gun advocates maintain that those who hold that a safe society is a product of gun control put the cart before the horse. To reiterate, they believe it requires law-abiding citizens to be at least as well armed as lawbreakers. But, to expect mothers, for example, to be “packing” to defend their children and head massacres off at the pass makes gun advocates sound like they’re not listening to themselves.

Nuclear-weapons advocates are also susceptible to the logic that beginning to relinquish your arms before your adversaries do is foolhardy. Not only do they believe nonproliferation should precede disarmament. But many of them insist that a nuclear-weapon state attempting to demonstrate leadership on disarmament by divesting itself of nuclear weapons exerts no salutary effect on the nuclear-weapons aspirations of non-nuclear-weapon states. Whether or not that’s true, it’s tough to deny that a nuclear-weapon state that dodges its disarmament obligations while insisting have-nots remain that way breeds resentment.

In truth, a safe society is impossible when guns continue to flood the market. Nor is any nation exempt from extinction as long as nuclear weapons, with their risks of detonation – whether by “accident, miscalculation or design” – exist. Put the two together and our children can’t help but be bewildered by the message we’re sending them. The conclusion they draw may look like this: “If deterrence fails, a nuclear war may break out during your lifetime. But, at least we’re leaving you guns to help you navigate the post-apocalyptic world.”

Absolute security may be our ideal, but in fact it’s a false idol to which we sacrifice the future of our species. If vulnerability is a window, it’s as difficult to keep weather-sealed as it is to keep radiation from a nuclear blast out by duct-taping the windows of our home.

On the other hand, neither do gun control and disarmament provide surefire routes to total security. Deprived of a concealed-carry permit during the interlude between legislation of substantive gun control and its implementation, we’re at a disadvantage during an assault or robbery. A disarmament agenda such as the Global Zero Action Plan may be meticulous, but all the phasing and verification in the world can’t guarantee an opportunistic state won’t be tempted to sneak in a nuclear attack. As Nobel laureate Thomas Schelling wrote: “Most of what we call civilization depends on reciprocal vulnerability.”

It’s inescapable: both making society civil in more than just name only and rendering foreign relations harmonious require a leap of faith. What’s called for is the rarest kind of courage: resisting our natural inclination to resort to overkill under the illusion that it will protect our children today and instead seeking to make the world safer for future generations.