Why self-defense is a dumb argument against gun control

I usually stay middle-of-the-road when it comes to politics, but when I see a breakdown in logic and reason, I always feel compelled to point it out. So here we go….

In light of this latest shooting in South Carolina, you’re probably seeing this argument again:

Guns are for self-defense. Sure, these tragic shootings get major media coverage, but we never hear about all the times an innocent citizen pulls a gun and subdues an impending criminal. Thus, the frequent times a gun is used to prevent violence overshadows the rare occasions that violence actually occurs.

The person espousing this argument may even share a video that shows just such an incident of an innocent person pulling a gun in self-defense.

On the surface, this argument sounds logical. We need to defend ourselves against all the bad people in the world, right?

Sure. But without even getting into a discussion on the actual data out there (here’s an article with citations if you want some numbers), here’s where the guns-as-self-defense logic falls apart:

You see, the argument only works if we have a better weapon than our enemy. What we’re neglecting is that if we win our argument, then everyone else gets guns, too.

First, let’s set aside the fact that, sure, we think we’re always the hero, but we might end up being someone else’s villain at some point. That’s a whole ‘nother complication that we don’t need to get into today.

No, the reality is that if we allow ourselves to own a gun, then we allow everyone to own a gun, and what we end up with is an arms race, known in logic as the Prisoner’s Dilemma.

If you didn’t grow up in the Cold War and have no idea what an arms race is, here’s a Bugs Bunny clip that explains it perfectly (well, except for the bouquet at the end):

Arms Race

Now, here’s the curious thing about an arms race: At alternating points within the race, it’s easy to take a snapshot of the situation and proclaim that we are indeed the victor, and that we’ve done the right thing by arming ourselves. That’s what we see in these stories getting passed around. People are cherry-picking a single point within an arms race and saying, “See? We need guns to protect ourselves! Look what would have happened otherwise.”

But the problem is that an arms race is not a fixed point in time. It’s a neverending situation. And when we engage in an arms race, all parties involved ultimately end up losing. The story doesn’t end with the unarmed villain backing off and us living happily ever after. No, it continues when the villain buys a gun himself, because everyone else around him has a gun.

So what are we going to do then? Start openly carrying grenade launchers?

Here’s the bottom line: If we engage in an arms race for self-defense, at some point, we will face a better-armed villain. And that’s when we’re shit out of luck.

No. If our goal is self-preservation, then we should actually be talking about more — or better — gun control. Let’s talk about how we can keep a check on everyone’s ability to buy and own a firearm, hero or villain. Let’s talk about how we can determine who can own a gun safely, and who can’t, and actually enforce such requirements. Let’s talk about how we else can defend ourselves, without resorting to the threat of deadly force. To me, these are the discussions we should be having, because these are the discussions that will actually protect us as a society in the long run.

Saying that guns should be allowed because we need to defend ourselves? Sorry. That just doesn’t work on any rational level.

Oh, and for the record, I’m not here to argue against guns. Go ahead and tout your right to bear arms. I have no problem with that.

Just don’t go around claiming that your guns are for self-defense. Because that argument is short-sighted and ultimately doomed to fail. And faulty logic, I do have a problem with.

Addendum, 6/20/15:

A bunch of people responding to this post on Facebook referenced a literal arms race ( (i.e., like the US/Soviet one during the Cold War), and I guess the Bugs Bunny cartoon didn’t help. My bad for that. Here’s my clarification on the whole arms race thing:

The gist of an arms race scenario (or prisoner’s dilemma, if you’re into game theory) is that you’re afraid of what someone else might be capable of doing to you, so you prepare to defend yourself accordingly. The only problem is that when everyone does this, then the situation escalates, and no one gains an advantage in the long run.

Buying a gun for self-defense comes down to this exact scenario — you need to protect yourself from the bad guys out there. No, you may not need a bigger gun (this is where the Bugs Bunny cartoon is inappropriate). But just the fact that you feel you need a gun at all is because of what you fear someone else might have. That is precisely the prisoner’s dilemma.

And in this type of situation, the ultimate solution is fewer guns — not more guns — for everyone. Yes, you can point to isolated incidents and say that self-defense worked in these cases. But again, it’s a scenario that is shortsighted and doomed to fail in the long term.

So, I stand by my point: If your sole goal is self-defense, then opposing gun control (and I’m speaking on a general level — I’m not getting in to the specifics of what that control actually entails) is the wrong solution in the long run.

12 thoughts on “Why self-defense is a dumb argument against gun control

  1. Your article makes no sense to me. You assume bad guys don’t currently have guns. Here’s a more realistic scenario: Town has 100 residents, all have guns. Read articles like yours and decide to implement gun control. Demand return of all guns to the appropriate authority. 96 guns returned, Breakdown of town citzens: 96 law abiding, 2 criminals, 1 crazy guy, one crazy women. Question: is everyone safer?


    1. That depends. Do all 100 residents know how to handle guns properly, and can we trust them to always act rationally when they are packing, and in the heat of the moment, not do anything stupid and impulsive?


  2. Your article is ridiculous. Hundreds of thousands of incidents per year occur in which a citizen successfully uses his/her firearm in self defense of their life/health/property. How can you possibly surmise that guns cant be used for self defense? They can and are. Every day.


    1. 1) Your stat is questionable. (Yes, I know the sources out there. No, there isn’t a consensus on the actual number.)

      2) You missed the entire point of the argument. Just because it works once — or even hundreds of thousands of times — doesn’t negate the long-term net loss for society. I suspect you didn’t actually read the post.


  3. You assume that criminals will enter into the arms race when more people have guns. This is true for the 10% of criminals that are intent on hurting people no matter what (eg. cartel members, terrorists). However, 90% of your everyday criminals just want an easy target. This is where your argument is flawed. Most of the time when criminals use a gun to commit a crime, it is to have power and control of the other person through fear. If a criminal knows a person has a gun or has the possibility of having a gun, they will most likely try to find an easier target because the marginal cost can outweigh the marginal benefit. Criminals would rather target a 5 foot slim woman than a 6 foot muscular man. This is because the criminal bears a higher risk of being injured in the process of committing the crime.

    Most criminals are risk averse just like anybody else, and do not want to bare high risk. If criminals know that a potential target may be armed, it may cause them to second think their actions because they bare a risk of being injured. This is the reason why most criminals do not rob military bases and police stations. They pick easier targets such as small convenience stores or people they think are weaker than them. If criminals know that a potential target may be armed, it can cause them to second think about their actions because they bare a risk of being injured.

    Assuming that criminals will just use “better” weapons to commit crimes is ludicrous. Lets say some criminal just wants some easy cash so they plan to rob a few people at gunpoint. They know that the people will be armed with pistols, so they buy a machine gun to assert their higher dominance. The criminal’s marginal cost is the cost of the machine gun and the risk of being injured in robbing any of the people. The marginal benefit could be just a few hundred dollars. Is the marginal cost greater than the marginal benefit? No of course! A risk averse person will only engage in an activity if the marginal benefit is greater than the marginal cost. With having such a high marginal cost, a risk averse criminal would not commit the crime.

    All in all, what I am trying to say is that criminals will not necessarily escalate their weapons just like in the arms race scenario. Because if they escalate more, their marginal cost is too high and does not outweigh their benefits. Self defense is a valid argument against gun control.


    1. By your logic, if everyone has guns, then criminals will simply … stop committing crimes? I applaud your faith in humanity, but I don’t share it. Self-defense is _not_ a valid argument against gun control.


    2. Yes, some criminals will stop committing crimes because their marginal benefit is not greater than their marginal cost. They bare a large risk of being injured when committing a crime against someone with a gun. In order words, some criminals will be too scared to commit a crime against someone who has a gun. I never said all criminals will stop committing crime because that is impossible.

      The Nash equilibrium is to have no guns. I agree with you. But that is impossible in today’s reality. Since criminals will always have access to guns through the blackmarket, no matter how strict gun laws are, a person’s best strategy is to be armed. Thus self defense is a valid argument.


    3. You’re committing the exact error that this blog post is about. You’re fixating on a single point within the arms race scenario, during which 1) you have armed yourself, 2) not all of the other “good guys” have also armed themselves (i.e., the “bad guys” will pick an easier target), and 3) some of the bad guys have dropped out of the race altogether (i.e., it’s not worth it for them to outgun you).

      That’s fine and all … for now.

      But the problem is that, as you yourself acknowledged, you can never get all the bad guys to drop out of the race. There will always be some bad guys who are better armed than you. Just because you rule out a subset of the bad guys with your marginal benefit argument doesn’t mean that you’ll rule out all the bad guys.

      As such, if we as a society apply the concept of arming ourselves as protection, then at some point, 1) the other good guys will catch up with you (because they too want to protect themselves), 2) you’ll still have bad guys who are better armed than you, and therefore, 3) when you get to that point, you’re back to being vulnerable again.

      Hence, you’re in no better position than if you had never armed yourself in the first place. It’s a classic prisoner’s dilemma scenario, and why the self-defense argument ultimately breaks down.

      Or look at it this way:

      The anti-gun control people love to point out that there will always be bad guys with guns, and for this reason, they need to arm themselves for self-defense. The problem is that they ignore the flip side to that rationale, which is that you will never be sufficiently armed to protect yourself from all the bad guys out there.

      Well, you have to apply the same logic to both ends of the spectrum. You can’t invoke one logical extreme (that we can never eliminate all the guns) and then simply ignore the opposite logical extreme (that we can never protect ourselves from all the bad guys).

      Basically, if you can argue that you don’t need to protect yourself from all the bad guys for self-defense to still be valid, then I can just as well argue that you don’t need to take away guns from everyone for gun control to still be valid.

      And in that case, it’s a wash between the two arguments, so they are both equally invalid.

      So, you’re looking at either self-defense being invalid, or both self-defense and gun control being invalid. Take your pick.


    4. I understand the point you are trying to make. However, I disagree with your assumption that ” you’ll still have bad guys who are better armed than you, and therefore, 3) when you get to that point, you’re back to being vulnerable again.” You are not vulnerable just because the criminal has a better weapon than you. Lets say the criminal has a machine gun and you have a pistol. While he does have an advantage, you are not helpless. You are more helpless when the criminal has a gun and you have nothing. Saying that you’re just as vulnerable with or without a gun is ludicrous. I’m not sure if you have ever shot a gun before, but it is not easy like the movies and video games show. Just because someone has a better weapon doesn’t mean he will win. A trained person with a “worse” weapon can easily neutralize the threat if the opponent is an amateur.

      Yes you will never be able to protect yourself from 100% of criminals, but having a gun as protection increases your chance of protecting yourself. Also, you do realize game theory is what it is, a theory. It is not necessarily 100% applicable to reality.


    5. If you want to argue “reality” (which is totally fine), then I would point out that you having a gun doesn’t make you as invulnerable as you think you are. In fact, it’s rare that you will ever come upon a situation where you actually need to defend yourself with a gun, and even then, you’re statistically more likely to injure yourself or an innocent person.

      Either way you slice it, self-defense is a problematic argument. If you want to own a gun, that’s fine. If it gives you some semblance of security, that’s totally fine, too. Just don’t argue that owning a gun for self-defense reasons is logical or sound.


  4. To the person making the marginal cost vs. marginal benefit argument…by that line of reasoning, the better course of action is to raise the marginal cost of owning any type of gun. One way to do that is to ban guns, which would increase the cost of guns and ammunition to the point where marginal costs (risk of injury and cost of gun) outweighs marginal benefit.


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