The Continuum Between Handguns and Nuclear Weapons

Most organizations working to prevent gun violence don’t also address the threat of nuclear weapons. On the 72nd anniversary of the US atomic bomb attacks on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima (August 6, 1945) and Nagasaki (August 9, 1945), however, it seems appropriate to point out that there is a continuum between handguns and nuclear weapons. As former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan stated in 2006:

The death toll from small arms dwarfs that of all other weapons systems – and in most years greatly exceeds the toll of the atomic bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In terms of the carnage they cause, small arms, indeed, could well be described as “weapons of mass destruction.”

The term, “small arms,” is generally used to mean any type of firearm or other explosive weapon that can be carried by a single individual, including not just handguns, but also rifles, mortars, grenades and shoulder fired missiles. In the United States, about 70-80% of all deaths from “small arms” are committed with handguns, with rifles accounting for most of the rest of small arms related deaths.

Every year in the United States, over 35,000 people are killed by guns. It’s estimated that about 120,000 people were killed immediately by the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and that another 120,000 people died over the next year as a direct effect of the burns, radiation exposure,and other trauma that they suffered in the attacks. Based on these estimates, every seven years, more US civilians die of gunshot wounds than all the people who were killed by the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Nuclear weapons are the most destructive devices ever invented by human beings. A nuclear war triggered by a false alarm, an accidental launch, a terrorist attack, or the intentional action of a rogue nation, could wipe out all of human civilization virtually overnight. Day in and day out, though, as Secretary General Kofi Annan pointed out, most violent deaths worldwide are committed with small arms, and in the United States, most of these deaths are committed with handguns.

There are a number of parallels between handguns and nuclear weapons. People who own handguns usually cite “protection” as the reason for having them. Similarly, countries that have nuclear weapons usually claim “deterrence” as the rationale for maintaining a nuclear arsenal.

There no credible  evidence, though, that either handguns or nuclear weapons provide any net protective value. On the contrary, there is overwhelming evidence that handguns in our homes and in our communities are much more likely to be used to kill, injure, or intimidate honest, law-abiding people than to protect them. In the case of nuclear weapons, the nations with nuclear arsenals are the ones at greatest risk of a nuclear attack by another nuclear power as a result of a false alarm or an accidental launch.  Moreover, the principle of deterrence depends upon the assumption that both friends and foes will behave in a rational manner. In the age of terrorist attacks, when large numbers of people are willing to blow themselves up in the belief that they will be rewarded with an afterlife filled with everlasting bliss; and in an age in which the mental stability of the heads of state of at least two of the nuclear powers – North Korea and the United States – is in serious question, the principle of deterrence is obsolete.

The Unites States is an outlier among other high income democratic countries with regard to both handguns and nuclear weapons. The US has by far the highest per capita rate of gun ownership, and by far the highest rate of gun related deaths of any developed country. It is the only high income democratic country that doesn’t either ban or stringently regulate civilian handgun ownership. At the United Nations biennial meeting of states to address the illicit international trade in small arms, the US plays largely an obstructionist role in order to protect its position as the leading exporter of military small arms and ammunition.

With regard to nuclear weapons, the United States is the only country that has ever used an atomic bomb in war. The US has nearly half of the world’s nuclear weapons, with Russia accounting for most of the other half. Although the US has engaged with the former Soviet Union and, since the dissolution of the USSR, with Russia in treaties to reduce their nuclear arsenals, the two countries still maintain enough nuclear weapons to exterminate the entire human race several times over.

The Trump Administration has already gotten legislation passed to allow 75,000 mentally ill Social Security recipients who are so disabled that someone else must manage their finances to legally purchase handguns and other firearms. Trump has expressed his support for pending legislation to abolish gun free school zones, to make a concealed handgun permit issued in one state good in every other state, and to make silencers easily available to gun owners. With regard to nuclear weapons, the Trump Administration is currently engaged in nuclear saber rattling with North Korea, in undermining the Iran nuclear agreement, and increasing spending on nuclear weapon “modernization” while decreasing spending on nuclear non-proliferation. The United States boycotted recent UN negotiations to establish an international treaty to ban nuclear weapons and strong-armed its allies to boycott the negotiations as well. The negotiations culminated in a 122-1 vote in the UN General Assembly on July 7, 2017, approving a treaty to make the possession or use of a nuclear weapon explicitly prohibited under international law. (The United States and 69 other UN member nations didn’t vote.)

There are also some parallels in attitudes of the American public toward handguns and nuclear weapons. Although the most recent polls show greater support for abolishing nuclear weapons (50% in 2010) than banning handguns (23% in 2016), the trend in recent years has been for declining public support of either measure. Fifty-six percent of the American public favored abolishing nuclear weapons in 1988. Sixty percent of the American public favored banning handguns in 1958.

Clearly, we have our work cut out for us if we are going to succeed in banning (or at least stringently regulating) handguns, or in abolishing nuclear weapons. If we don’t succeed, though, in adopting stringent gun control regulations in our country comparable to the regulations that have long been in place in every other high income democratic of the world, we know that mass shootings will continue to occur on a regular basis and that every year, approximately 35,000 American civilians will be killed by guns. And if we don’t succeed in abolishing nuclear weapons, the very existence of our species is in doubt. As President John F. Kennedy said over 50 years ago:

Every man, woman and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident or miscalculation or by madness. The weapons of war must be abolished before they abolish us.

During the week of the 72nd anniversaries of the US atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, please contact the White House, your US Senators, and your US Representative and urge them to work urgently both toward the adoption of stringent gun control laws comparable to the laws in place in every other high income democratic country of the world and toward the abolition of nuclear weapons. (Click on these links for contact information for the White House, the Senate, and the House of Representatives.)

Please also save the date of October 22, 2017, for the first annual dinner of Americans Against Gun Violence, which will be held in conjunction with the Sacramento Chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility. The dinner will feature keynote speaker Josh Sugarmann, Executive Director of the Violence Policy Center, speaking on the topic of preventing gun violence, as well as PSR/Sacramento President Dr. Harry Wang reporting on PSR’s work toward the abolition of nuclear weapons.

Finally, if you haven’t already become a member of Americans Against Gun Violence, please do so via the Join/Donate page of the Americans Against Gun Violence website, and please consider making an additional donation if you’re able.

Some people claim that we’ll never be able to stop gun violence in the United States or rid the world of nuclear weapons, but human beings created handguns and nuclear weapons and all the weapons systems in between.  If we were able to create these weapons of mass destruction, we should certainly be able to get rid of them. As the late Nobel Peace Prize winner Nelson Mandela said, “It always seems impossible until it’s done.” Thanks for your help in getting it done before it’s too late.




Bill Durston, MD
President, Americans Against Gun Violence

Note: Dr. Durston is a board certified emergency physician, a former expert marksman in the U.S. Marine Corps, and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War, decorated for courage under fire.