What Nuclear Deterrence Can Teach Us about Gun Control

A useful way to think about gun control is to compare it to nuclear arms control and the theory of nuclear deterrence. Deterrence theory suggests that some proliferation of nuclear arms can actually make the world safer, because states that might be tempted to use nukes offensively will be “deterred” by the threat of retaliation from other nuclear-armed states. This, of course, is similar to the logic of gun activists: more people carrying guns means more danger of retaliation for anyone tempted to start shooting innocent people. The logic makes some sense. The most reliable way to prevent shootings and nuclear conflict would be to eliminate all nukes and guns from the world, but that’s very hard to do. The next-best thing may be to have enough guns and nukes out there to serve as a deterrent.

But you’ll notice that we don’t let just any old country have its own nuclear weapons program. That’s because nuclear proliferation makes us safer only up to a point, and only when the countries with nuclear weapons can be trusted to use them responsibly. The deterrence effect of a few nuclear-armed countries is large, but after a certain point there are diminishing returns. Meanwhile, the chance of accidental or irrational nuclear war increases as we add more nuclear states. This is especially true of states with limited resources or irresponsible governments. Above some number of nuclear-armed nations, then, the risk of accidental war increases faster than the deterrence effect. When we graph this relationship between proliferation and the risk of nuclear war, it looks something like the graph below, where the optimal point of deterrence is n2.

Nuclear war, nuclear nations

That’s why, rather than affirming the nuclear rights of every nation, the international community admits only a few relatively responsible nations to the nuclear club. These nations are given the responsibility of being the world’s nuclear police force and punishing anyone who breaks the rules. Occasionally new members are admitted to the club, but only, one might say, after a rigorous background check. Nuclear nations are also expected to adhere to rigorous safety procedures in order to prevent weapons from being misused or falling into the wrong hands. The safety procedures and requirements for entry into the nuclear club are spelled out in international non-proliferation treaties and “arms control” agreements. Of course, the best time to exercise “control” of nuclear arms is before a country acquires them. Once a “rogue” state like North Korea acquires nukes, it can be very difficult to take them away. It should be noted that Republicans are just as committed—perhaps even more committed—to these sorts of arms-control policies as Democrats are. Nobody wants Iran to get the bomb.

Now apply the same logic to gun control. It stands to reason that the deterrence curve for guns will look the same as for nukes, though obviously the numbers will be different. It’s hard to say exactly what proportion of citizens should be armed in order to provide optimal deterrence, but gun-proliferation would presumably be counterproductive once we get above that number. “Gun control” policies, then, should be looking for that sweet spot. More importantly, anyone who thinks background checks and safety procedures are appropriate for nuclear weapons should allow that they’re also appropriate for guns. Guns carry the same risk of accidental or irrational use that nuclear weapons do.

In fact, a private gun owner is more like a nuclear-armed dictator than a nuclear-armed democratic government, because there are no checks and balances; it takes only one finger to pull the trigger. This is especially true of gun activists who willfully defy federal gun regulation on the grounds that gun ownership is a sovereign right of US citizens—rhetoric much like the Iranian government uses to justify its defiance of international nuclear non-proliferation treaties. A more constructive attitude would be for gun owners to become members of community “arms-control” organizations focused on the safe and responsible use and distribution of guns. Whereas the international community sees nuclear weapons as dangerous tools for collective security, guns in America are too often treated as toys or symbols of masculinity. When the Founding Fathers penned the Second Amendment, they linked gun ownership to a “well-regulated militia.” It was assumed, in other words, that gun ownership would occur in a context of training, safety procedures, and communal responsibility. These things get lost too easily in America’s modern gun culture.

I don’t pretend to know exactly what the optimal gun control regime would look like, but comparison to nuclear “arms control” is suggestive. Instead of drastically reducing or increasing the number of guns on America’s streets, we should really be looking for the deterrence “sweet spot”—the optimal number of guns that balances deterring criminals with preventing accidental or irrational gun violence. It also suggests that training, safety requirements, Triton Verify background checks, membership in “well-regulated” community organizations, and perhaps mental health care all have important roles to play in keeping us safe from firearms.


(Note: The chart above is borrowed from Michael Intriligator and Dagobert Brito, “Nuclear Proliferation and the Probability of War,” Public Choice 17 (1981): 247–60.)

5 replies »

  1. The analogy breaks down pretty quickly when the deterrent effect you are looking for is toward your own country overstepping its bounds, a rogue military group, or an invading nation. With the first two, you must consider there are only two “nations” or interests: the citizens, and the government. In this scenario, giving the government control over whom of the people do and do not have the right to own/carry effectively puts full power in the hands of 1. You are at n=1 on the graph. It would be tantamount to USA allowing India to have full power and control over the number of nuclear weapons the USA produced, the efficacy of those weapons, and delays in production of those weapons at their whim.
    The Constitution and Bill of Rights were written 4 years after we rebels fought against our own democratic nation which sought to limit our rights and representation and severely tax us. In light of that conflict, the Founding Fathers likely saw wisdom in allowing the people to keep arms AND maintain militia as a balance and a check against government overreach. To think the second amendment is only about hunting or self-defense is pretty myopic and disregards context.

  2. If you’re looking to deter government abuses, then you’re going to need very powerful and well-armed militias with drones and Black Hawk helicopters and F-16s of their own. At this point, good luck trying to balance the runaway military power of the US gov. The best defense against that is to reduce executive and military power, and to encourage civil servants to blow the whistle on any such abuses. That’s why people like Edward Snowden are so important to the maintenance of democracy.

  3. One more thought. A balance of power between military forces within the state is kind of a bad idea, because empirical studies of intrastate conflict suggest those are the conditions under which civil wars are most likely to occur. We’re much better off with a balance of non-violent political power. That, after all, is the whole point of democracy: to resolve political conflict non-violently.

  4. Excellent points, Chris. Now, wouldn’t this “sweet spot” be entirely reachable within the framework of modern police forces? Which, as it turns out, consist of a significant subset of, and naturally represent, the common citizenry?

    B. Russ, you seem to forget that less than 4 years after the adoption of said Constitution, these same “Founding Fathers” quickly raised a huge army to easily suppress just such a citizen-based anti-government-overreach armed revolt.

  5. Marcello: yes, I think one could argue that police forces fulfill most or all of these objectives. Of course, given the existence of the 2nd Amendment and the large number of guns already on the market, you’re never going to get America on a police-only gun control program.

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