The national security case for stronger gun control policies

The national security case for stronger gun control policies
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In the aftermath of yet another round of tragic shootings in the United States with semiautomatic weapons containing large ammunition clips, a chorus of advocates has powerfully argued for restrictions ​​​​on such weapons, together with background checks for gun sales and related measures. Unfortunately, such arguments have often failed before.

In order to reinforce them, and to improve their political prospects, we need to discuss the potential dangers to national security of nearly unencumbered access to certain types of extremely lethal weapons ​within the United States. Beyond the very real and tragic dangers to individuals, their families, and communities, there are also inherent risks to the strategic and military interests of the United States as a whole.

Consider one such risk, requiring far less imagination and advance preparation to carry out than, say, the 9/11 attacks. A group of several dozen or more tactically proficient operatives could gain access to semiautomatic or fully automatic weapons, and then conduct an entire planned series of attacks as a group. The plan could take time to prepare since, if it involved foreigners, they would have to find ways to enter the country without raising suspicions, and they would have to exclude individuals on terrorist watch lists. However, a sufficiently competent patient organization or nation state could very well pull that off.


One possible manifestation of the threat would be classic terrorism on a large scale. The world has seen this kind of operation before. One of the most notable occurred in Mumbai in November 2008, when a team trained by Pakistan from the Lashkar Taiba terrorist group killed nearly 200 people in different parts of the city. Another one occurred in Paris in November 2015, when a group of extremists led by Abdelhamid Abaaoud killed 130 people at the Bataclan nightclub and other locations.

These results hint at the outcomes that a trained group could achieve. Individual shooter attacks at places like Orlando in June 2016 and Las Vegas in October 2017 have killed 49 or more people and injured scores more in a single incident. A team as large as that of the 9/11 hijacking plot might cause many hundreds of fatalities. Other targets could include nuclear power plants or toxic chemical facilities. At some point, the scale of the attack and the nature of the target could elevate the consequences of such a hypothetical act beyond a human tragedy to a national security matter, just as the 9/11 attacks led to war in Afghanistan and beyond.

To improve the prospects of success, after they practiced their attack and before reassembling to carry it out, the team of plotters could go radio silent during the days they sought to buy guns. That would reduce the odds of the whole plot unraveling if one or more of the plotters were noticed, suspected, and intercepted before making their purchases.

Another possible manifestation of this type of scenario may be even more worrisome in national security terms, such as an attack against American military bases where some of the crown jewels of the military are normally located. A great power rival preparing to carry out an attack against a neighbor, that could lead to an American response, might wish to have such a preemptive capability against our military. Think China before it attacks Taiwan, or Russia before it goes after the Baltic states. Here, semiautomatic or fully automatic weapons might be used to gain access to the base. Explosives might then be used to target the key assets.

Most United States aircraft carriers are located at just three ports in the United States. These are the Newport News and Norfolk area in Virginia, San Diego in California, and Bremerton in Washington state. Moreover, the majority are in port on any given day. Submarines armed with nuclear weapons operate out of two ports in Georgia and Washington state. B2 bombers operate out of Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri. A team of gunmen might attempt to fight its way into range of such assets with the intention of then employing drones, improvised explosive devices, rocket propelled grenades, or even weapons against the actual tanks and assets.


Of course, these bases are not undefended. After decades of intensive foreign operations and terrorist attacks in the broader Middle East, the American military anticipates attacks on its large facilities. Checkpoint security, patrols, and quick response teams are available to deter, detect, and defeat attempts at penetration. But such teams are generally small. Moreover, they may not be quite as vigilant on American soil as they are abroad. The perpetrators of such attacks may not be likely to escape with their lives once their missions were complete, but they might be able to reach and destroy their targets before being overwhelmed.

Such attacks may sound fanciful and, certainly, the heavy weaponry described above is not readily available at gun shops or sporting goods stores. But ​explosives can be stolen or manufactured, and the black market might make available rocket propelled grenades or even small missiles. Indeed, such attacks have happened before, and heavy weapons have been acquired by criminal elements. ​A small trained group can cause devastating effects beyond what might expect from their numbers.

In a riveting 1996 history of special operations raids, most of them from World War II, Admiral William McRaven describes how raids against defended assets on a homeland can be successful if they employ effective use of surprise, coordinated and practiced tactics, and rapid action. Alan Vick of Rand Corporation has documented more than 2,000 aircraft destroyed on the ground by snipers or other operatives since 1942.

The United States would not be brought completely to its knees by such blows. But if an enemy could pull them off, the American military could, in principle, lose large fractions of key assets at the heart of its offensive strike power. An adversary might then hope that cyberattacks could be employed against other American capabilities, dramatically slowing the possible retaliatory response and improving its chances of victory.

Why would we want to increase the prospects of such attacks by making it so easy for anyone who wishes to arm themselves to the hilt right here on American soil? The answer, of course, is that we would not want to do so, which is why we already limit, to a degree, the kind of weaponry that anyone can acquire. However, we still allow too many weapons that are incredibly deadly and overly powerful for civilian or sporting use, as well as deadly munitions and body armor that can kill or thwart police. The latest mass shooting tragedies should lead us to reconsider our gun regulations, before more tragedies, or a worst case scenario, occurs.

Michael O’Hanlon is a senior fellow and the director of research at the Brookings Institution in Washington and an author whose latest book is “The Senkaku Paradox: Risking Great Power War over Small Stakes.”