Shouldn't People Who Favor Gun Control Favor War in Iraq?

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Mr. Kates is a constitutional lawyer and a criminologist. His latest book (co-authored with Prof. Gary Kleck) is, Armed: New Perspectives On Gun Control (Prometheus, 2001).

The current debate over forcibly preventing Iraq from acquiring nuclear weapons is notable because it finds "liberals" heedlessly abandoning crucial verities of 20th Century liberalism. As a criminologist I find instructive the parallels between this debate and the debate over gun control.


Contentious as the gun control debate sometimes is, certain propositions enjoy a virtual consensus. One is that there are some people who, in an ideal world, would not possess firearms or any instrument more dangerous than a toothpick. Everyone concurs in the need to disarm the Charles Mansons, Ted Bundys, Andrew Cunanans -- and, yes, the Saddam Husseins -- of this world. It would seem that this ought to apply with infinitely greater force to the possession of atomic weapons than of mere guns.

Before pursuing that point, however, I should qualify my claim of a consensus by noting the semi-dissent of a few ideological opponents of gun control. Even these semi-dissenters seem to agree it would be a safer world if the Mansons-Hitlers-Cunanans-Saddams did not have access to weapons. But they deny government should be involved in disarming anyone. They are extreme Libertarians who object on principle that prophylactic laws go beyond the proper role of government. They deny that the state should ban guns even to violent criminals, or, for that matter, that drunken driving should be prohibited. On principle, these extreme Libertarians assert that government may go no further than imposing severe punishments on wrong-doers after the wrongs occur. In other words, people who injure or kill others with a gun, or by drunken driving, may be punished thereafter, but not precluded by laws against drunk driving or guns.


The extreme Libertarian argument is mimicked by Prof. Arthur Schlesinger's recent essay opposing forcible action against Iraq developing a nuclear arsenal. (Arthur Schlesinger, "The Immorality of Preventive War" HNN 8-26-02; reprinted from the L.A. TIMES.) That essay, which has been acclaimed by Prof. Joyce Appleby and others on HNN and elsewhere, blithely shrugs off the dangers of Saddam's possessing atomic weapons. The good professor avers that because Saddam "is not interested in suicide" he would not misuse those weapons, wherefore his having them does not represent a "clear and present danger."

Far be it from me to preach the use of historical example to the likes of Professors Schlesinger and Appleby. Yet they seem to be overlooking the contrary example in the years 1939-45 of someone Saddam closely resembles. Hitler plunged the world into a war that became literally suicidal for him -- after the deaths of over 50 million others. The only difference between the Schlesinger essay and the extreme Libertarian position is that the essay does not end with something like: "Even if I am wrong -- even if Saddam's nuclear weapons kill millions -- we can make everything right by later bringing him to a Nuremburg-type trial."

Ironically Professor Schlesinger is an emphatic proponent of banning guns to the entire populace, much less to violent felons. Yet if his argument that there is little danger in Saddam having a-bombs were valid, there would be no need for gun control of any kind. Based on the Schlesinger reasoning, we need not fear guns in the hands of even violent criminals: for such criminals "are not interested in suicide," so they would not misuse those weapons thereby occasioning their own deaths imposed by the state.

These pollyannaish prognostications are belied by the well-established fact that criminals are all too often willing to take suicidal risks. For instance, if Saddam obtains an a-bomb, he might think no one could trace it back to him if he smuggles it onto some miscellaneous tramp freighter and detonates it in New York harbor.

Such gambles are second nature to Saddam who is as reckless as a gambler as was Hitler. Consider his 1980 attack on Iran, a nation four times more populous than Iraq and much stronger militarily. But, seeing Iran in the midst of revolutionary turmoil Saddam (mis)-calculated that he could steal some of its oil-rich provinces adjoining Iraq. The mis-calculation proved a ludicrous catastrophe when Iran initially routed the Iraqi attack and went on to capture some of Iraq's own oil-rich provinces.

Iraq narrowly avoided its own destruction by precipitately acquiring vast amounts of equipment financed by borrowing hundreds of billions of dollars from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. In contrast, because of Iran's pariah status it could not even replace existing equipment, much less add new tanks, planes, etc. Only because of this handicap did the war end in stalemate -- after 750,000 deaths. Both nations' provinces were heavily damaged. Iraq gained nothing from the eight year war and was saddled with debts far beyond its ability to pay.

Saddam's solution was another reckless gamble: invading Kuwait from which he was immediately expelled by the Gulf War with losses that exceeded 100,000 dead and vast amounts of equipment. This was irreplaceable because Iraq is virtually bankrupt. Saddam's opponent in the Gulf War, the U.S., suffered less than 300 dead and minimal equipment loss.


Professor Schlesinger's essay also flies in the face of 20th Century liberalism's espousal of the urgent need for arms control, especially of nuclear arms. Now I do not mean to suggest that 20th Century conservatives were unconscious of this urgent need. But it was a matter of supreme concern to liberals (of whom I am one). Throughout the 20th Century we pressed the case for arms control and disarmament consistently and insistently. In the latter half of the Century the terrible dangers posed by nuclear weaponry led some liberals to advocate even unilateral nuclear disarmament.

20th Century liberal concerns are wholly at odds with the Schlesinger essay's indifference toward Saddam's acquisition of nuclear arms. If the danger that he may misuse those arms should be shrugged off because Saddam "is not interested in suicide," why should we ever fear nuclear proliferation? What does it matter if every nation acquires such weapons? After all, none of them are "interested in suicide," are they?

Professor Schlesinger to the contrary notwithstanding, the wisdom of 20th Century liberalism was (and is) that any nation's acquisition of such arms represents a "clear and present danger, [a] direct and immediate threat" to the entire world.

Nor will it do for Professor Schlesinger to explain that what he really meant is that the danger is not "clear and present" enough to justify forcibly disarming Saddam of nuclear weapon capacity. Implicit in the phrase "clear and present danger" is that a time can come when the danger suffices to justify drastic action. If that time is not here now, when will it come? The instant before Saddam detonates an atomic weapon in New York's harbor?

Over almost a decade, the U.S. and the U.N. have taken every step short of war to dissuade Saddam. The time for decisive action is now, before Saddam has nuclear arms.


At the suggestion of scholars whom I have run this essay by, I hasten to clarify a couple of points:

* My argument is solely directed to the situation of Iraq, a nation run by a paranoid sociopath with expansionist ambitions and a record of mass murder, who is determined to have nuclear weapons. I am not aware of any parallel situation elsewhere in the world. But if someone shows that some other nation represents a comparably catastrophic peril to the world, I certainly would endorse the same measures against it.

* I do not endorse any notion of the U.S. running around replacing deplorable, even loathsome, governments. Not only have we neither the right nor the resources for such a role, it would be futile. The kind of government any nation has is determined by its history, institutions and heritage, and the underlying social, cultural and economic factors unique to that nation. The U.S. can produce short-term change by overthrowing a government. But we can no more impose a government of our design over the long term than a hyena can be redesigned as an eagle by shaving its fur and gluing feathers on it. (Nevertheless, one minor consideration favoring forcible action to prevent Saddam's acquisition of nuclear weapons is that any new Iraqi government is likely to be at least marginally better than his.)

* Nor am I under the illusion that America's historical record is above reproach, much less that our allies have always been so. Such considerations are often by people who solemnly claim they estop the U.S. from taking otherwise justified action. But that argument is irrelevant to the point of inanity. To see this, just apply it where it is most applicable, yet never applied by those who argue that America's checkered history estops us from taking some action against wrong-doers. They never offer such arguments as reasons why we should not have entered WWII. Somehow they cannot see the clear result of their own argument: that our checkered past morally estopped us from war with Hitler -- especially in alliance with Stalin's USSR, a regime no less evil than Hitler's, not to mention Chaing Kai-chek's corrupt and brutal regime in China.

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More Comments:

William J. Stepp - 3/29/2007

Well, the evidence is in and Saddam did not aid and abet 9/11, nor has there ever been a "fully-engaged nuclear weapons program and delivery system in Iraq."
Meanwhile, the U.S. maintains a fully-engaged nuclear weapons and and delivery system paid for by stealing money from U.S. taxpayers.
Saddam never stole a dime from me or from anyone I know.

Dr. Pubonum - 11/4/2003

SHHHHHHH...stop being a clown...you sound silly and obviously uneducated

Dr. Plubonum

Alicia - 9/30/2003

Just because some people are for gun control, soesnt mean that they want the war in iraq!! When i say i want gun control, i mean... certain people shouldnt have guns! i dont want to walk down the street and get shot just for being on someone's part of the road!! its not right!! do you think its fair???? i sure dont!!

non ya bussiness! - 12/12/2002

u rite soo borin finz hrd2 reed & useless wot da hell du u fink of ur self?

don kates - 9/23/2002

Sorry, didn't get it.
But let me respond that I write on lots of other topics, as just perusing my comments on HNN will show; or try looking at the art commentary and other items on donkates.com or my article in Afro-American history, Mexican American history, constitutional law and history, the JFK assassination, etc. in the Index to Legal Periodicals

Raymond Chandler - 9/23/2002

Don, it's a joke. I'm poking fun at your single-mindedness. I'm not disagreeing with your analysis or policy prescriptions, just your constantly seeing the world through the lense of the gun control debate.

I am expressing no policy views at all.
I'm just needling you.
I hope that's allowed.

don kates - 9/23/2002

I must confess that Mr. Chandler's meaning has utterly escaped me. Mr. Gunn's reply suggests that he thinks Mr. Chandler is arguing for banning guns. If so, his post is entirely eccentric to my essay. My point is that one thing everyone in the gun control debate agrees on is that violent, murderous sociopaths should not be allowed to have guns -- much less nuclear weapons.
Another possible interpretation of the Chandler post is that he is indifferent to the proliferation of nuclear weapons everywhere and to every nation. If that really is his point, I cease to wonder that I cannot make sense of his post

Thomas Gunn - 9/22/2002

Geez Ray,

It's not about guns, It's about rights. You know those pesky things protected by the "Bill of Rights"?

For Kates it's the inconsistancy of denying American citizen's rights b/c they might abuse them, but looking the other way as Saddam abuses his people, his neighbors, and ultimately US.

Are you being deliberately obtuse?


Raymond Chandler - 9/22/2002

Don Kates:

There is an old joke: What is the definition of a "dentist"?

It's a person who sees the world as sets of teeth running around with legs attached.

Must everything be seen by looking down the barrel of a gun?

Bill Heuisler - 9/20/2002

Well put, Mr. Karr; pure logic, given the strained parameters. To condense: Will you change your opinion when hard evidence shows Saddam aided and abetted 9/11? Will you change your opinion when evidence is provided of a proximate, fully-engaged nuclear weapons program and delivery system in Iraq?
Bill Heuisler

Alec Lloyd - 9/20/2002

Mr. Kates, the logic of your argument is clear and irrefutable. That is why all of your opponents change the subject.

Alec Lloyd - 9/20/2002

He used the exact same post elsewhere on this site. Doesn’t make a lot of sense there, either.

I like the part of it being easier to overbuild every structure on earth by at least 10 percent than to deal with Saddam Hussein. Yeah, that’s practical.

Alec Lloyd - 9/20/2002

Come now, Mr. Gunn, "wrong hands" means "not mine."

Thomas Gunn - 9/20/2002

Geez guys, I didn't think Kates was *this* complicated.

I thought the thrust of his essay was to point out the inconsistancy of certain segments of the political spectrum vis-a-vis individual gun control on the home front and international WMD control.

On the home front the idea being that individuals cannot be trusted with guns b/c they may misuse them, but internationally Saddam's right to WMD should not be infringed for the reasons stated in the essay.

It is only fair to admit that I personally am a BOR supporter, and believe that said rights are individual in nature. It is also fair to say that I have no qualms supressing the RKBA of individuals proven to have misused them or are a credible threat to abuse arms by virtue of certain felony convictions.

The question then becomes should innocent US citizens and benign dictators have thier right to arms suppressed, and is there nexus specifically between innocent US citizens and Saddam.

If one believes Saddam innocent of the charge of using WMD on his own people then one may have a valid argument his right to arms should not be suppressed. If however one believes otherwise, what the hell are we having this discussion for. We don't hesitate to remove the RKBA from individual US felons. Can we do any less for a despot who has struck once, twice, three times with WMD? And wouldn't that be the consistant position Kates was looking for?


don kates - 9/20/2002

Mr. Karr's remarks are so elliptical and irrelevant that readers may have lost the thread of the argument. So let me repeat it: In addressing those who actually argue that the U.S. should not try to prevent Saddam obtaining nuclear arms because of the U.S.'s (allegedly) checkered past, and morally dubious allies therein, I pointed out that in WWII we were allied w/ Stalin's Russia and Chaing Kai-shek's brutal, corrupt Chinese dictatorship.
Mr. Karr responds claiming that we did not enter WWII voluntarily but rather were the subject of German and Japanese declarations of war. That is LITERALLY true, of course. But it ignores the actual reasons behind those declarations of war. As to Japan, the reason was that when it invaded China we had sided with the Chinese, giving them vast amounts of aid in resisting. As to Nazi Germany, the reason for its declaration of war was that we had aided Stalin's Russia to resist Hitler's attack. (Germany had an alliance w/ Japan, but that did not commit it to join Japan in war against us. Hitler did that voluntarily out of anger at our aid to his enemies England and Russia. Thus, if you think our record in the Middle East, and our alliance w/ such egregious nations as Saudi Arabia estop us from trying to disarm Saddam you should equally believe a similar record should have kept us from interfering to help Japan's and Germany's victims to resist.

don kates - 9/19/2002

Yes, I am a lawyer. Specifically, I am not a trial lawyer but an appellate lawyer, which means I value consistency, logic and the ability to reason in a straight line. I would have thought the same true of civil engineers. Perhaps because my father was one), I am unwilling to assume that what Mr. Todd provides instead typifies civil engineers.
Let me see if I can reduce my essay to a simple enough level for Mr. Todd to understand it: I argue that invading Iraq is urgently justified in order to prevent an expansionistic paranoid sociopathic mass murderer from obtaining nuclear weapons. In other words, my essay is about arms control -- a subject Mr. Todd's "response" does not even mention. Conversely, I did not say word-1 about oil, oil policy, hydrogen, electricity, the engineering of the WTC, or Dick Cheney, Bill Gates or Donald Rumsfeld. On the contrary, in discussing ARMS CONTROL, I invoked late 20th Century American liberal thought, e.g., the views of people like Arthur Schlesinger, Adlai Stevenson, George McGovern, Walter Mondale and many others whom Mr. Todd does not mention.
I can neither endorse nor reject Mr. Todd's opinions, given that they are virtually unintelligible as expressed, particularly in the (non)-context of my essay. Nor can I regret never having read Alvin Toffler if Mr. Todd's post is a result of such reading.

Thomas Gunn - 9/19/2002

Maybe you could loan your crystal ball out to the government?

I'm sure it makes no errors and would never keep rights out of innocent hands.

Or maybe just a minor tune up to the constitution and then just the elite will have rights. After all they are the only ones that have earned the right to have rights, by virtue of their acting ability or football playing or political posturing.

One question you and your crystal ball could answer. Do you favor taking Saddam's ability to produce WMD's and preventing him from aquiring more in the future and by what method?

This should be interesting. Oh, and please don't ramble on.


Ronald Dale Karr - 9/19/2002

"They never offer such arguments as reasons why we should not have entered WWII."

The U.S. did NOT go to war with Germany and Japan because of their genuine human rights violations. Nor because we feared their weapons of mass destrcution (war machine), or we wanted a regime change, though undoubtedly we did. We went to war because they declared war on us first! At that point only a committed pacifist, an anarchist, or a dedicated traitor could opt out of the war effort. Before Pearl Harbor millions of Americans who were neither pacifists, anarchists, or traitors opposed U.S. entry into the European war.

World War II is unique in this regard--in no other war was the U.S. attacked first. Also, in all other wars, except perhaps Korea, there were anti-war movements: 1812, Mexican War, Spanish-American War, WWI, and Vietnam.

Conflating Sadaam with Hitler is an historical absurdity. Hitler was so dangerous to the rest of the world not because he was viscious tyrant or a mass murderer but because he commanded one of the world's most potent war machines, fully capable of taking on the Soviet Union, the U.S., and the British Empire simultaneously.

In eleven years Hitler went from a victorious politician to the ruler of most of Europe to near defeat against the largest coalition ever assembled. In eleven years since the Gulf War Sadaam has gone nowhere. If he is really so unstable and reckless how do you explain this? Why hasn't Sadaam done something in all that time? Or has our containment policy worked in Iraq, the way it did in Europe against the Soviet Union?

Andrew Todd - 9/19/2002

I see little point in arguing about the ethics and legalities of
invading Iraq until it is first proven to be a policy of good
sense. I am further convinced that such an invasion would be
nothing more than the continuation of a policy of comprehensive
stupidity. I wasn't particularly surprised to find that Mr. Kates
is a lawyer. We engineers have learned from experience to expect
that kind of thing from lawyers.
American policy in the middle east is comprehensively driven
by oil. The reason the United States sold various advanced
weapons to the arabs was to buy oil. Our military interventions
have no purpose save to seize oil. From an engineer's
standpoint, this amounts to one big colossal blunder. You can
find ways to run an automobile on coal for now, and windmills for
later. Furthermore, these methods cost much less than war-- in
money, that is. The highest cost of war is lives, of course. Dick
Cheney is comprehensively implicated in the whole middle east
process, both as an official, and as an oil company executive. I
feel entitled to say that he is an utterly stupid, incompetent
fool. The same goes for his cronies like Donald Rumsfeld, and
Paul Wolfowitz, and the whole Bush family.
I don't hold much of a brief for Bill Gates. I'm a committed
member of the open-source-software movement, with a stack of
public-domain programs to prove it. However, Bill Gates would
never have been dumb enough to get us into the mess Dick Cheney
has gotten us into.
Cheney knew twenty years ago that the oil would not last
forever-- where was his migration path? The beauty of hydrogen as
a fuel is that you can economically manufacture it from almost
anything that will burn, or from any source of electricity.
Hydrogen is like electricity. It serves as a flexibility layer.
Your automobiles and home furnaces are not locked into particular
mineral deposits. By contrast, gasoline is a mixture of octane,
hexane, etc. compounds which are comparatively expensive to make
from anything except oil. People who have thought seriously
about energy for years have repeatedly come to the conclusion
that you have to develop hydrogen wherever you can't use
electricity. Cheney and his cronies persistently neglected
alternative energy in order to stake everything on repeatedly
invading the middle east. The dumb donkeys just kept on stupidly
plodding ahead.
I would seriously recommend to Don Kates and Ronald Radosh
that they read the major works of Alvin Toffler, notably _The
Third Wave_ and _Future Shock_. John Naisbit's _Megatrends_ is
another good book, along the same lines, but more accessible. It
is less given to reflection on big ideas, and more given to
simple, immediately practical, advice. Naisbit is to Toffler in
techno-economic thought as Jomini or Lidell-Hart is to Clausewitz
in military thought. One of the best tests I know for a book is
whether it still makes sense after twenty or thirty years have
gone by. These books pass muster.
Here is a closing anecdote. Shortly after 9/11 I was talking
with an elderly civil engineer. We talked in engineer's code,
where a frown or a grunt, or a raised eyebrow requires about
twenty pages of translation for a layman. I had come to the
conclusion that the World Trade Center could have been prevented
from collapsing if about ten percent more had been spent on it.
The elderly civil engineer, on the other hand, had been trying,
without success, to find a solution that only cost one percent
more, because he judged that ten percent was not within the realm
of practical politics. I defer, of course, to his greater
judgment of practical politics. However, since practical politics
are a social artifact, created by men like Dick Cheney, I can
only repeat: Stupid, Stupid, Incompetent Fools!

Andrew D. Todd

Alec Lloyd - 9/19/2002

Ah, so whenever a cop or former law-enforcement official commits a crime we should give them a pass as well because, well, he had official sanction to carry one once. I think not.

Can someone please explain where this twisted bit of logic originated? I don’t understand how one can credibly argue that corrective action cannot be taken, ever, precisely BECAUSE a mistake was made.

It isn’t an argument, it’s the absence of one. It is the intellectual equivalent of shouting “I know you are, what am I?!” in the sandbox.

Pierre S. Troublion - 9/18/2002

This rambling piece ignores the salient and very shortsighted support for Saddam by Cheny, Rumsfeld & Co during the 1980s.
The more intelligent approach to both weapons control, both domestically and interationally, is to stop the mindless proliferation of such weapons BEFORE they get into the wrong hands.

Thomas Gunn - 9/16/2002

While 2nd Amendment *rights* are totally suppressed after most felony and some misdemeanor convictions, drinking or driving *privileges* are rarely suppressed after drunk driving convictions. And in the few cases where the driving prvilege is suppressed the punishment for sober driving is nearly nonexistant, and certainly not a deterrent.