Op−Ed | Parallel scopes
Published: Tuesday, March 12, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, March 12, 2013 01:03
In 2013, the issue of gun control is one of the most hotly debated questions facing America domestically. Should guns be more regulated? How much more? Does regulation infringe upon our basic rights? Meanwhile, in the international arena, the question of nuclear non−proliferation has yielded a more consistent answer by the United States. No, no, and absolutely no nuclear proliferation if we have anything to say about it. These may seem to be two very clearly separate issues, but upon a different approach, there is a cognitive dissonance to be found, a contradiction. We need to restructure the scope of discourse regarding both nuclear non−proliferation and domestic gun control in order to evaluate our values in a more holistic manner, bringing the same logic we apply at the international scope down to the domestic level.
If we envision the state conceptually in the modern sense as a sovereign entity, we can view it as a macrocosm of the rights that are becoming generally accepted as fundamental human rights. Self−determination and sovereignty are the two obvious parallels: In the United States at least (and most of the Western world) consensus has been building over the last three centuries that an individual’s own affairs, body and mind are his or her own, and that he or she ultimately has the final say in matters pertaining directly to themselves. Meanwhile, it is an accepted conceptual norm of the international system that sovereignty is the supremacy of power within a state’s given territory. Obviously, both of these “norms” are violated far more often than we would like, but they are currently the accepted ideals toward which we strive.
So with these norms in mind, let’s take it the next step, in a way that Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan envisioned. Let us picture the state as a macrocosm of what we see and conceptualize as our individual selves. This takes nuclear weapons to a macro−sized scope of what a gun does on the individual scope. Without direct contact between the conflicting parties, the gun and the nuclear missile give one or more parties the ability to do unacceptable if not annihilating damage to the other, a well−targeted nuclear missile has the potential to wipe out a small state as well as cripple other weaker states. Look at the damage caused by Sept. 11 and the continuing after−effects, and imagine if it had been a nuclear attack. At the individual level, we see the same potential from guns — the potential to kill us if well−aimed and to cripple us very easily. Is this not what we fear most about nuclear weapons? We fear the potential for thousands, if not millions, of people to be killed at once, making it a state−level fear. Once it has become a state−level existential threat, we pull out all the stops to regulate these weapons. At the international level, part of our desire to promote nuclear non−proliferation is to keep these dangerous weapons out of the hands of those who we believe to be the irrational folks in the international system—terrorist groups, autocratic states and states whose ability to keep these weapons to themselves without proliferating them (Pakistan, cough, cough) is in doubt. Similarly, we would hope domestically to keep guns away from those who would use them irrationally and defy all our expected norms of behavior by doing unnecessary harm to other human beings.
How do we go about this on the international level? Well, regulation is the simple answer, regulation with teeth. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Treaty on the Non−Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) are international institutions dedicated to the non−proliferation and regulation of atomic power, specifically to keep nuclear weapons from harming us. For those with nuclear weapons, the principle of mutually assured destruction (MAD) is what we have hoped keeps those with these weapons from firing at each other, but not necessarily so the states and other actors we view as irrational. Iran, North Korea, al Qaeda, the Taliban, Iraq — all are actors who the U.S. has had a vested interest in keeping nuclear power away from. As a nation we’ve gone so far as to get behind a proposal to invade Iraq (correctly or not) to remove nuclear weapons along with other WMD from the hands of one of these irrational actors for fear they might be used in ways we disapprove of. U.S. strategic planning in pulling out of Afghanistan may involve maintaining sufficient forces there as some kind of quick reaction force for nuclear troubles in Pakistan, and Pakistani officials consistently fear a U.S. attempt to access their nuclear program or in laymen’s terms, “come to take away our guns.” Of course, our insistence that we prevent nuclear proliferation hurts some perfectly honest actors who have no history of violent offenses — let’s say Switzerland, that neighbor who you know is responsible with their weapons. Although lacking in nuclear weapons, Switzerland probably wouldn’t be the most controversial state ever to possess them. While we (the international community) allow Switzerland to have nuclear energy because of what is effectively a definitive background check and transparency about their programs, we try to regulate the system enough to prevent countries like Iran from having nuclear weapons. Maybe the same logic could be applied to guns?
Now, here is where the sobering facts come in. All in all, although non−proliferation has not been 100 percent successful, it is hard to fault effort and willingness both to achieve this goal and constantly improve upon methods to do so. Since the birth of the nuclear age, the estimated number of deaths from nuclear weapons is around 200,000. All these deaths occurred in two instances — both were U.S. atomic weapons dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In this metaphor, on the world stage the United States is the only nation with a history of this type of violent conduct. Gun violence? The total number of deaths in the United States alone between 1999 and 2011 was 396,646, an average of over 30,000 per year. Sixty−eight years of nuclear weapons and the worldwide total death toll from these weapons is half our domestic death toll from guns in the past 13 years.