What if Bush were as eager to control guns as WMD?

This week, as United Nations weapons inspectors returned to Iraq after a four-year absence, George W. Bush, bolstered by the midterm election mandate, reiterated the need to keep Iraq free of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) - by going to war if necessary.

Disarming Iraq has become central to Bush's controversial new national security doctrine that declares Washington has the right to take preemptive action against any nation that threatens it or its allies (unless, it seems, the threat comes from North Korea).

Underlying the new Bush doctrine, however, lies a secondary premise that has received far less attention: The best way for the US to deter international conflicts is by ensuring America's own overwhelming power. By maintaining the country's awe-inspiring strength, Bush's logic runs, Washington can discourage anyone from competing with it. Predominant power will make America the new global sheriff, with an effective monopoly on military might.

Of course, whether it is actually possible to monopolize force internationally and dissuade military competition remains to be seen.

In any event, the Bush doctrine would make much more sense were it applied in the one place Washington has refused to consider it: at home.

After all, it is only within the borders of the US that the government can realistically corner the market on force. And the need for such a monopoly has never been greater than today, as the recent sniper attacks have made tragically clear.

Stanching the flow of firearms in America would be a crucial first step in this direction. And yet the Bush administration - though ready to go to war to disarm rogue nations - allows itself to be outgunned by rogue citizens in its own backyard.

The White House is demanding full weapons disclosure from Iraq, refusing to tolerate "any deception, denial or deceit, period," but it will not consider requiring similar information at home in the form of a national gun registration. By refusing to catalog the Americans who possess high-powered weapons and rejecting calls to limit gun ownership, Washington has impaired the ability of law-enforcement agencies to protect Americans in their own country.

Some will object that it is unfair and inappropriate to compare foreign and domestic policy; that the two realms, with different priorities and different rules, aren't analogous. That's true. But there's no reason that the principles behind one policy shouldn't inform the other.

If achieving peaceful order abroad requires establishing a de facto Pax Americana, why shouldn't Washington adopt the same approach at home?

Expand the parallel and the contradictions between Bush's foreign activism and domestic passivity multiply. The administration opposes ballistic fingerprinting (which could curb domestic gun violence) because, it argues, the technology is unreliable.

Yet the administration relies heavily on an infamously unreliable technology - national missile defense - in its efforts to limit international conflict. The White House has also argued that the Constitution prevents many of the proposed restrictions on guns.

But this administration has blithely disregarded legal restraints when it comes to foreign policy: whether the ABM Treaty that Bush unilaterally abrogated earlier this year, or the constitutional guarantees of due process and habeas corpus that the White House has ignored in detaining terror suspects.

Consider the Bushmaster rifle used by the Beltway snipers. Billed as the civilian version of the M-16, this gun rivals anything used by police. It's the domestic equivalent of chemical weapons: a relatively cheap and portable tool than can wreak havoc and inflict great harm on a more powerful opponent.

Bush is ready to send tens of thousands of soldiers into battle to disarm Iraq of such a tool, even though the Bushmaster is freely available at home to virtually anyone who can afford one.

Applied to the international arena, the logic of the administration's gun-control policy (or lack thereof) would put weapons of mass destruction in the hands of almost every government on the planet, without even requiring the disclosure of their existence. Think of the implications for political destabilization, accidental nuclear explosions, chemical leaks, and smallpox epidemics.

The White House deems such risks unacceptable internationally - as it should. But parallel carnage - more than 28,000 gun-related deaths in 2000, for example - continues to mount at home, yet is brushed off by Bush as the price of freedom.

The president has decided to take on Hussein because he believes the US can't tolerate the risk that Iraq might use WMD against it. Assessing and limiting that risk seems rational. But each year, tens of thousands of military-style weapons are sold in the US, and domestic gun- related deaths dwarf the number of people who perished Sept. 11.

Would it not be rational to try and limit those deaths as well? Comparing Bush's foreign and domestic policy raises a critical question: If the White House truly wants to keep Americans safe, shouldn't it be starting the process a little closer to home?

Jonathan D. Tepperman is senior editor at Foreign Affairs magazine. Avi S. Gesser is a lawyer in New York.

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