The recent shooting of thirteen students at a community college in Oregon has raised again the question of gun control in the United States. In speaking to the American people after this latest incident, a frustrated President Obama pointed out how little progress has been made to curb these shootings and how repetitive the situation has become: “We’ve become numb to this. We talked about this after Columbine, and Blacksburg, after Tucson, after Newtown, after Aurora, after Charleston. It cannot be this easy for somebody who wants to inflict harm on other people to get his or her hands on a gun,” he said.
The president’s reaction to the killings at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, was quite different from those opposed to gun control. Instead of trying to limit access to weapons, some have proposed giving more guns to more people. This argument, what I refer to as “the more the merrier,” was suggested by Donald Trump last week. “I can make the case that if there were guns in that room other than [the shooter's], fewer people would have died. Fewer people would have been so horribly injured,” Trump said on NBC's “Meet the Press.” In other words, if teachers and fellow students had had weapons that day the assassin would not have tried to shoot others. If everyone has a weapon, this argument goes, no one will use them.
This line of reasoning has also been used concerning nuclear weapons. While the international community – especially those countries possessing nuclear weapons – has tried to limit nuclear proliferation, some have argued that if every country had a nuclear bomb, no country would use it for fear of retaliation. The eminent American scholar Kenneth Waltz wrote an essay in 1981 entitled “The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: More May Be Better.” He argued that if the bipolar world of the United States. vs Soviet Union produced stability, it was because each country was afraid of mutual destruction. Nuclear weapons, he maintained, “make the cost of war seem frighteningly high and discourage states from wars that might lead to the use of such weapons.”
A weapon can be used to defend oneself. That is obvious. But Waltz’s claim is that the very possession of a nuclear weapon will dissuade an opponent from using his weapon. Deterrence is not defense, but acts to prevent. As he says: “’To deter’ literally means to stop someone from doing something by frightening him. In contrast to dissuasion by defense, dissuasion by deterrence acts by frightening a state out of attacking, not because of the difficulty of launching an attack and carrying it home, but because the expected reaction of the attacked will result in one’s own severe punishment.”
One can imagine the debate that ensued from this argument. Scholarly articles and books proliferated. In the midst of discussions about limiting Iran’s nuclear program, Waltz followed his 1981 provocation with an article in 2012 in the prestigious journal Foreign Affairs entitled “Why Iran Should Get the Bomb: Nuclear Balancing Would Mean Stability.” Several years ago, during Waltz’s presentation of “the more the merrier” in Geneva - the site of the Conference on Disarmament - many in the audience walked out, scandalized by the idea of unlimited proliferation.
While one can say that there has not been a major war between states that have nuclear weapons, one cannot say that there is a direct cause and effect. Having nuclear weapons and not having war is not the same thing; correlation is not the same as causality. On the other hand, statistics do show that more guns equal more homicides; states in the United States with tighter gun control laws have fewer gun murders. The same is true of countries. In a wonderful phrase of Adam Gopnik, “Gun control works on gun violence as surely as antibiotics do on bacterial infections.”
President Obama’s frustration was obvious. Not enough Americans or members of Congress have similar feelings. The possession of guns remains ingrained in the American frontier spirit. “The more the merrier” continues to dominate the national discourse on guns with no reform in sight. More preschoolers are shot dead each year (82 in 2013) than police officers are in the line of duty (27 in 2013), according to figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the FBI and cited by Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times.
While certain members of Congress vilified the Iran nuclear deal saying it would not stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons, thus arguing against proliferation, those same members used “the more the merrier” argument against gun control. Iran should not have nuclear weapons but more guns will stop gun homicides. “The more the merrier” will not work for nuclear weapons but will work for guns.
In a world of multiple logics, I can only point out the inconsistencies here, fully realizing that pointing out logical inconsistencies will not change legislation or save lives.