M.A.D. with Guns

© Josh Sager – October 2013


Many of the arguments used by gun-rights absolutists (AKA “gun nuts”) during fights over gun control laws involve the concept of gun ownership as a deterrent to crime. These people argue that they wish to arm themselves in order to not only defend themselves against incoming threats, but to deter potential threats from seeing them as a viable target.

Here are a few examples of such arguments:

“The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun, is a good guy with a gun”

Wayne LaPierre, 2012

“The Navy Yard is a gun-free zone, which is also known as a free-fire zone for bad guys. They always go after soft targets.”

Rick Moore, 2013

While the stakes are decidedly lower, many anti-gun control arguments are based around a premise similar to that of the Cold War era’s “Mutually Assured Destruction” (MAD).


The theory of mutually assured destruction is an argument for a strategic balance of weapons between state actors that would promote peace—specifically, this was referring to a nuclear balance of power between the United States and the USSR. According to MAD, two rational actors with both first and second strike capabilities (pre-emptive and retaliatory) to destroy their enemy would be unwilling to go to attack one another. In effect, an attack by one entity could destroy its enemy, but such an attack would also result in self-destruction due to the resulting counter-attack.

In order for MAD to function as a deterrent, several requirements must be met:

  1. Both actors require the ability to destroy the other (or at least inflict extremely high levels of harm) rapidly.
  2. Both actors must either be able to detect an incoming attack and launch a second strike before they are destroyed, or be able to trigger a second strike after their destruction (ex. the “Dead Hand”).
  3. Both Actors must be rational and not willing to initiate a kamikaze attack.

On the macro-level, MAD involves the ability of nation-states to annihilate one another via nuclear strike but, on the micro-level, it can also be used to describe how individual actors could possibly act in regard to shootings. Because of this connection, we can use the exceptions to the MAD strategic equilibrium in order to debunk the arguments of the gun-rights absolutists.

Put simply, the anti-gun control arguments used to support near-universal gun ownership to function as deterrence to violence may sound superficially valid, but, when we look at specifics, they fail to conform to the requirements which make MAD possible.


A “Splendid First Strike”

In any MAD scenario, a first strike which can completely disable or destroy an enemy while pre-empting a counter-attack is able to short-circuit the strategic equilibrium—they can act with impunity, as they are capable of destroying their adversary without worrying about a second strike.

tsar bom explosion

 In many domestic shootings, the first strike functions as a “splendid” strike and results in the victim being unable to initiate a second strike, even if they own weapons. After all, we are humans, not nations with automated and entrenched second-strike weapons, thus there is no real way to ensure a counter-attack if somebody were to start shooting. If a shooter has designated a target and starts shooting, the odds are that, even if that person is armed, they will be incapacitated by the surprise attack, thus unable to defend themselves—it is possible that other entities (ex. the police) will come along later and take the shooter down, but, that is irrelevant in assessing the strategic equilibrium between the two involved actors.

A perfect example of this comes from the first casualty of the Newtown School shooting: Adam Lanza’s mother. Nancy Lanza was a gun-enthusiast who owned numerous weapons and who was trained to use them. Despite this, she was killed by her son, with her own gun, and had no ability to defend herself or initiate a second strike. Killed by a single shot, there was no opportunity for her to fight back or ensure the mutual destruction of her killer, making this event an example of a splendid first strike.

After killing is mother, Adam Lanza went on to initiate dozens more strikes upon people who were unable to defend themselves (due to age, not their lack of weapons) before he was stopped by police.  

This failure of MAD represents a real life example of one of the fallacies of applying MAD logic to gun control—humans are far more vulnerable to first strikes than nation-states, thus asserting that an equilibrium of force can be created when everybody is armed is simply not realistic. The aggressor has an incredible advantage while the victims are most often killed until something stops the aggressor from carrying out their offensive (ex. they run out of ammo or need to reload).


Irrational Actors

MAD functions as deterrent when all entities involved are rational, able to recognize the state of equilibrium, and responsive to the threat of destruction. If an entity is irrational and either unable to recognize that they are in a state of equilibrium (ex. misperceiving that their enemy is going to attack them at any moment) or suicidal, then MAD equilibrium simply becomes mutual destruction.

It is this requirement for MAD equilibrium which is the reason why nobody wants Iran to get nuclear weapons—they are seen as irrational actors by many, thus are more likely to use their weapons, even in the face of catastrophic retaliation.

Contrasting this, if we are to believe the gun-enthusiasts’’ argument on guns (more weapons and less gun control = safer), then we would naturally assume that an armed Iran would make the world safer. If more weapons equals more peace, then the USA should give nukes to every country, including such places as Iran and Myanmar. Obviously, this is not the case, either on a nation-state or individual level, as irrational actors don’t conform to the requirements of MAD equilibrium.

In many domestic shootings, the shooter is either disturbed or suicidal—looking to go out “in a blaze of glory”—thus assuming that they will be deterred by the threat of a second strike is simply a mistake. Many shooters expect to die and simply want to accrue a high body count before somebody kills them.


Since many shooters are irrational, the application of MAD as deterrent will not stop all shootings. Such deterrent may stop some shooters but those are only the rational and, let’s face it, anybody to contemplate a mass shooting is likely an irrational actor.


Imperfect Information

In a MAD equilibrium with multiple involved actors, it is important that every actor have the ability to determine which opponent is a threat or has initiated force against them. This is true because, without this information, it is highly likely that a first strike could result in the target initiating a second strike against an entity which did not attack them.

To further describe this type of situation, imagine a multi-actor conflict involving Russia, the USA, and China. If Russia were to launch a strike on the USA and we were unable to determine whether the strike originated from Russia or China, we would face a split-decision between possibly destroying the wrong opponent or being destroyed without retaliating against our destroyer—in this scenario, it is possible that the initiator of the first strike survives and that we retaliate against the opponent which was maintaining an equilibrium (thus also destroying our enemy’s competition with our misplaced second strike).

In shootings where multiple individuals have guns, it is highly likely that a cross-fire could result where nobody knows who the first shooter was. One person fires the first shot, which is met by another person firing at them, setting off a chain reaction where other people fire at the person who they perceive to be the original shooter. In such a shooting, it is likely that the resulting shootout would kill more people than the original shooter could have done so alone, because the number of shooters would be multiplied.


Thus situation is further complicated by the possibility of multiple initial shooters (ex. Columbine had two shooters working in tandem), leading to a massive shootout where nobody knows who is a criminal and who is simply reacting to what they see as a mass-shooter. To make this even worse, the police would likely be unable to determine who the original shooters were once they arrived, thus risking the lives of everybody who is armed in the vicinity of the shooting, criminal or not.


Economic Limitations of Actors

In order for MAD to function, all actors must have the ability to initiate devastating strikes, which presupposes a certain level of economic power. Any entity which is unable to muster the economic resources in order to arm itself becomes subservient to the whims of the entities which have developed the ability to annihilate them without fear of retaliation.

For example: If Iraq had succeeded in getting nuclear weapons during the 1980s (when Israel destroyed their reactor with a preemptive bombing campaign), then there is little chance that the USA would have attempted an invasion in 2003—the risk of an invasion would be too high, as the target would have the ability to defend itself.

The ultimate example of this problem comes from the only wartime use of nuclear weapons. The United States was the first country to develop nukes, thus was able to use them two times against the Japanese (Hiroshima and Nagasaki) without fear of equal retaliation. Because of this, Japan was forced to surrender and was forced to accede to the demands of the United States.

When applied to guns, this problem with MAD creates a situation where self-defense is stratified by economic means. Even if we believe that guns are a deterrent (and, given my points above, this is highly questionable), the unequal access to weapons leads to poorer people being forced into a subservient position to the wealthy—the wealthy can buy assault rifles and establish arsenals, while poor people are unarmed.

This situation is largely harmless in defensive terms, but it creates a psychological effect where the heavily armed assume that they have a primacy of force and are able to use it with impunity. In short, they become like the US during Iraq and are more likely to enter violent conflict with less-wealthy actors because of their perceived superiority in terms of arms. In the domestic sense, this is likely to result in more shootings like the Trayvon Martin one, where well-armed Americans rapidly escalate to lethal force, because they perceive themselves as armed and ready to “defend” themselves.



In totality, we are left with the conclusion that the concept of mutually assured destruction is applicable to gun violence, but no strategic equilibrium is possible. When MAD and peace through armament are applied to domestic gun ownership, the only results are more shootings, and mutual destruction.

This failure of MAD to sustain an equilibrium in regard to gun ownership pretty much annihilates many American gun enthusiasts’ arguments as to why they should be allowed to keep their guns. If the argument that guns are vital to self-defense and crime deterrence are debunked, then gun enthusiasts are left with the fact that their guns purpose is either recreational or as a very dangerous security blanket—neither of these purposes are worth the cost of tens of thousands of gun deaths a year that our country is currently paying.  

If everybody is allowed to own powerful weapons, then irrational actors will use them to kill innocent members of the population, imperfect information will cause armed individuals to retaliate against the wrong shooter, and the arrogance of a well-armed entity will cause a rise in “preemptive” self-defense. In short, lots of Americans will die senselessly.

In order to stop this cycle of violence, we need to put more restrictions on powerful weapons, not open up access to everybody in a misguided attempt to create a strategic equilibrium. In effect, we need a mutual disarmament, where we are left with the police holding the primacy of force in regard to firearms. Drain the country of powerful firearms (ex. assault rifles) through banning their sale and using buybacks/confiscations of guns used in crimes, so that irrational or criminal individuals are less able to arm themselves.

Countries like Australia have already figured this type of disarmament out and, as a result, they only experience a fraction of the gun violence that the USA does. It isn’t an easy road, particularly considering the strength of the gun lobby and the sheer number of weapons already out there, but it is the only realistic path to a country which doesn’t experience a mass-shooting every couple months and ten thousand gun murders a year.

11 thoughts on “M.A.D. with Guns

  1. I can honestly say that you are the first person that I have ever heard of who has attempted to apply the concept of mutally assured destruction to the Second Amendment and compared firearms to nuclear weapons. That is a very interesting photo you used of the young people pointing toy guns at each other. I particularly like the individual on the far left with his tie around his head in what I assume to be a tribute to Rambo. Did you find this somewhere or did you take this photo yourself?

    I believe I can safely say that most law abiding firearms owners just simply want to live and let live and would only use deadly force in order to protect themselves or their loved ones. I have had the honor and privilege of knowing many firearms owners and I have yet to hear one say that they want to go around hunting for criminals or those whom they believe to be potential criminals in order to make that “splendid first stike”. As for Nancy Lanza, she knew that her son was mentally ill and that she should not have kept firearms in her home where he could obtain them. It is true that the children of Sandy Hook Elementary were unable to defend themselves due to their age, but this was not the case for the school staff. An armed principal or school security officer could have made a difference.

    Would you not agree that if a disturbed individual wants to “go out in a blaze of glory” and “accrue a high body count” that it is unlikely that they will surrender and should be stopped with deadly force as soon as possible? There are several incidents in which a police officer arrives at the scene of a crime and incorrectly assumes the wrong individual to be the one responsible. Sometimes with tragic consequences. However, I am unable to find any incidents of shootouts caused by a chain reaction of innocent armed citizens firing at other innocent armed citizens by mistake. If you find one, please let me know. I know that this may be possible in theory. However, I can list several actual and documented incidents of armed citizens using firearms to stop criminals. As for your statement regarding poor citizens not being able to afford guns and being forced into a “subserviant position” by wealthy gun owners, you are just grasping at straws. I don’t know if you have ever purchased a firearm, but nowhere during the process do you have to list your income. A homeless individual could not buy a gun since you have to show a photo indentification with a valid address, but that is the only exception I can think of. A law abiding person who doesn’t have a great deal of disposable income can still purchase a quality or at least acceptable second hand firearm for self defense from a pawn broker and can use layaway if needed. Perhaps some guns that are confiscated from criminals by police and are not damaged or illegaly altered could be sold at a discount to law abiding citizens to generate revenue for the police dept. I ask that you view the video that I have included before you reply. Thanks.


  2. Again. The police are not legally obligated to protect citizens. Read Warren v. District of Columbia. Warren was not allowed self-defense yet couldn’t sue when the police neglected their duty.


  3. Everything that you are pushing encourages more stratification. The rich and connected get to keep their “may issue” permits and bodyguards while the poor and middle class have to play 911 roulette.


  4. Makes sense to me. No one can dispute with fact, that countries which have stronger gun laws or gun bans, have much fewer gun deaths or that mass murder from guns is nonexistent. I kind of like Switzerland”s answer to gun control. Every able bodied citizen will be issued guns upon request, but the ammunition is stored by the government, and can be purchased with regulated efficiency. The Swiss are prepared to defend their country with guns, but need not worry about being killed by their own countrymen. Better even than M.A.D, might be M.A.P :Mutually Assured Peace.


    • You should read my comment and video that I posted on 10-03-13 under Mr. Sager’s article “White Privelege and The Second Amendment”. The current policy in Switzerland was never an answer to gun control. Military service in Switzerland is actually compulsory and all males are required to submit to serve at age 18. With women, service is voluntary. Approximatley one third of all males are found unfit for service and are assigned other more appropriate duties. The Swiss military is comprised of only 5 percent full time, professional soldiers with the majority of personell being conscripted militia (no , the US is NOT the only country that uses the “M” word). It is stipulated that all trained soldiers MUST keep their weapons and personal equipment at home. However, you are correct that ammunition is stored by the government but only since 2007.


      • Switzerland and Israel both have compulsory military service, thus are able to have very high weapons ownership levels without the accompanying levels of crime that we see in the USA. This is because mental health and personality screenings eliminate unsuitable individuals from the military (as you mentioned), thus prevent them from accessing military-style weapons.

        A minority of gun holders will ever use guns for criminal or violent conduct, but it is this minority who make strong gun regulations necessary. Israel and Switzerland give a lot of people guns, but they also have VERY strict procedures to prevent the violent in their countries from getting such weapons.

        In effect, these countries have universal background checks, training requirements, gun registration, mental health screenings, and structures of accountability that serve as extremely strong gun controls–controls that no state in the USA could get passed.


  5. “Assault rifles” have been illegal since the NFA and FOPA, assault rifles are selective-fire intermediate power rifles. The non-assault rifles semi-automatic civilian versions like the AR-15 still use the same reduced power cartridge which is less powerful, not more powerful than the average rifle round. And would such a “buyback” be mandatory, ie a euphemism for gun confiscation?
    Your comment is awaiting mode


    • We both know that civilian rifles like the AR-15 can easily be modified to full auto given a couple hours, a machine shop, and the internet.

      As to the buybacks: no, a confiscation is not feasible given the number of stray guns in this country; what I propose is attrition via preventing future guns from reaching the market, combined with incentivizing people to disarm through voluntary buybacks, and selective confiscations based upon criminal conduct (ex. if you commit a crime and are found to have illegal guns, those guns are destroyed rather than auctioned off).


  6. “We both know that civilian rifles like the AR-15 can easily be modified to full auto given a couple hours, a machine shop, and the internet.”

    That is true of and and all semi-automatic weapons not merely the AR-15, so selectively singling it out makes no logical sense.


  7. Pingback: Guns and Dominoes: Let's Play Global Thermonuclear War! - The Domino Principle

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