Tag Archives: Gun Control

The Offense-Defense Balance Applies to Interpersonal Conflict, Too

Regular readers of my personal blog know that I am not a fan of firearms as a self-defense solution. While there are clearly cases in which firearms have produced good self-defense outcomes, on balance I think that they cause more problems (and cost more lives) than they save.

I know that there are plenty of folks out there who, for dogmatic reasons, will disagree with me. Some of them, if they were to read the preceding paragraph, would decide on the basis of those two sentences alone that I am not only wrong, but a communist/atheist/socialist/libtard out to take all guns away from everyone so that Obama can destroy America and rule over the new fascist dystopia he so desperately wants. Needless to say, I do not write for these people.

For those of you who might be interested in understanding why I regard guns as dangerous and destabilizing, I offer the following. This is not an exercise in “scenario gotcha” – there is always a different hypothetical that begins “What if I’m attacked in this situation…?” There are an infinite number of hypothetical scenarios, and I will freely concede that there is no one answer to all of them. What follows is a discussion for why guns, on balance, are more problematic than helpful.

I have long maintained that the study of interpersonal conflict and the study of international conflict (my primary field of expertise) have a lot in common. What I have been trying to say about the effect of guns on interpersonal violence has been long understood by those who study international conflict.

Many years ago, the imminent scholar Robert Jervis penned a seminal piece in the study of war (if you want to read the whole thing, you can download a copy here). Titled “Cooperation Under the Security Dilemma”, Jervis explored the logic of when conflicts will escalate and when countries will cooperate in a world where there is no central government and every country is (in theory) afraid for its security against every other.

In exploring this question, Jervis introduces a really critical concept: the “offense-defense balance”. Jervis explains the idea this way:

When we say that the offense has the advantage, we simply mean that it is easier to destroy the other’s army and take its territory than it is to defend one’s own. When the defense has the advantage, it is easier to protect and to hold than it is to move forward, destroy, and take.

This is a function of technology and tactics. In World War I the combination of fortifications, automatic machine guns, and trench warfare made taking territory almost impossible and defending it much easier. Vast numbers of lives were lost trying to take a few hundred yards of land in Belgium and France. The war made no sense, and was possible only because the military and political leaders of the day misunderstood the true offense-defense balance until it was too late.

Fast-forward to the start of WWII, and the tables had turned. The maturation of aircraft, the development of the tank, and the new doctrine of Blitzkrieg made maneuver the order of the day. It was much easier, and cheaper, for Germany to take territory than it was for France to defend it. That advantage made it much more likely that Germany would launch the war it wanted anyway.

The important thing about the offense-defense balance is that it has a strong effect on whether countries (or people) are likely to initiate violence or not. In Jervis’ words, “whether it is better to attack or to defend influences short-run stability.” When the offense has the advantage, war is more likely because in a crisis countries will fear that the other guy will launch a surprise attack and thereby win. There have been enough examples since 1945 (the 1967 Arab-Israeli war comes to mind) to keep this logic alive. Simply put, in a world in which the dominant technologies & doctrines are offense-oriented violence between states is much more likely. In a world in which defense is dominant, violence is less likely.

Some might want to argue that “countries aren’t people” and therefore this logic doesn’t apply to the conflict between mugger and victim, or between two men in a bar, or in any other conflict between two individuals. It is true that the analogy doesn’t work whenever there are immediate mechanisms that can enforce security – a police presence nearby, for example. But most self-defense scenarios take place away from the protections of the government – that is, under conditions of temporary anarchy. No government, no central protecting force – you’re on your own, much like countries in the world.

So what do guns do in an environment of immediate interpersonal insecurity? Guns are an inherently offense-dominant technology – that make it easier by orders of magnitude to hurt or kill the other person than it is for that person to defend themselves against an attack. There are in fact few ready defenses against a gunshot (kevlar body armor comes to mind, but it is expensive, not widely available, and impractical to wear in most situations).

In this sense, guns are to interpersonal violence what nuclear weapons are to countries – the weapon against which there is no effective defense. Guns are actually worse in one sense: a country cannot defend itself against a nuclear strike (“Star Wars” fantasies aside), but nuclear-armed states have a reasonable hope of being able to fire back after absorbing that first hit, thereby destroying the other side too. This creates mutual deterrence (MAD, or “Mutually Assured Destruction”, as it became known in the Cold War), which creates its own kind of stability through a “balance of terror”.

Guns are worse, because they lack this tendency to create mutual deterrence. If I shoot you first, and if my aim is good, it is very unlikely that you are going to be able to fire back. I am not therefore deterred by the thought that my opening fire will get me shot in turn. If we are both armed (or if I think you might be), I have every incentive to fire first so that you cannot shoot back. My own self-preservation depends on how fast I can get off the first shot.

Jervis himself, in his 1978 article, foresaw this. Long before Michael Brown, #blacklivesmatter, or the “war on cops”, he wrote this:

In another arena, the same dilemma applies to the policeman in a dark alley confronting a suspected criminal who appears to be holding a weapon. Though racism may indeed be present, the security dilemma can account for many of the tragic shootings of innocent people in ghettos.

I would modify this to suggest that the security dilemma rationalizes racism, and that the two feed off each other, but you get the point. This logic is in fact exactly the defense that police have been using in court to get away with shooting unarmed people.

If police have difficulty resolving this dilemma, how well will untrained or lightly-trained civilians do? The fact of the matter is that the only way you can use a gun to defend yourself, if push comes to shove, is to shoot the other guy first. Those that argue that arming everyone reduces the likelihood of violence ignore the unstable offense-dominance of guns. Guns can only be a deterrent if people are assured of their ability to shoot back – that is, if they can absorb the first strike.

Add to this the challenge of carrying guns in the modern environment. In most places guns must be concealed (in a purse, holster, etc.), increasing the time it takes to bring them to bear. Openly carried guns can make the carrier a target, further increasing the likelihood of violence. None of this pushes things towards more peaceful personal interactions, whether the problem is predators (in Jervis’ parlance, the aggressor-defender model) or people simply being afraid of each other (the security dilemma).

The offense-defense balance problem is real. Every age has its dominant technologies, and these technologies make violence more or less likely. Small, cheap, easily accessible guns are unarguably offense-dominant, and as such they make violence more likely and more problematic between people even if those people merely seek to protect themselves. So let’s stop referring to guns as tools of self-defense and call them what they really are: first-strike weapons.