Gun ho!

I’ve seen this picture doing the rounds on Facebook lately:

Guess which is banned: a Kinder Surprise or an assault weapon?

I reason that the issue is all about design faults. A gun is designed to kill people, so when it does that it is behaving exactly as expected. A Kinder Surprise is designed to entertain children, and it is only entertaining for adults to watch a child choke to death so it fails in its purpose…

Seriously though, I find the US obsession with having guns really strange. I can understand the point that if everybody is educated properly in gun use, then theoretically nobody will be accidentally killed by guns. However, according to this report there were 851 deaths in 2011 by accidental discharge of firearms. That’s 2.3 people every day. Obviously education is working very well. I’m only going to talk about accidental gun deaths here; the issues of suicide and homicide deserve their own discussions.

The only surprising thing about the number of accidental gun deaths is how few there are. There is a well-established hierarchy of controls for dealing with workplace hazards, but there is no reason why they can’t apply to hazards in the home and community as well. The controls, in order from most effective to least effective, are:

  1. Elimination
  2. Substitution
  3. Engineering Controls (Safeguarding Technology)
  4. Administrative Controls (Training and Procedures)
  5. Personal Protective Equipment

As you can see, educating people on gun safety is 4th on the list, it is definitely not the most effective method!

So what are our options?

The simplest answer is to ban or restrict guns. However for a number of reasons this is strongly opposed, and to consider this would require more analysis into whether reducing legal guns reduces deaths. Even assuming that elimination is not possible, that still leaves…

Is there a better tool that can be used to achieve the required goal? Why do people need guns? If for self defense, can the gun be substituted for something less lethal like a taser (which can still be deadly, but is safer than a gun) or pepper spray?

Engineering controls
Can you put an engineering control on the gun to make it safer? There already are some, for example a trigger guard and a safety catch. But can we do more? There is already fingerprint technology to prevent a gun being operated by an unauthorised user. And hey, it seems that several US states have already passed a law requiring guns to have this technology. Why don’t the rest of you get in on the act?

Administrative Controls
Here is where your education and licensing fit. They work great in practice, but they are very easy to get around.

Personal Protective Equipment
We could of course require that everybody wears a bulletproof vest (and helmet, and gauntlets, and greaves!) but that would make going to the beach a lot less fun.

So what is the best answer? From an outsider’s perspective, it seems that the best (but hardest) thing to do would be to change the US culture to be less eager to embrace guns. It’s a matter of the US as a whole agreeing that it’s worth making a few concessions to save up to 851 lives per year. That’s 851 unlucky mothers (or 849 unlucky mothers and 1 really unlucky mother).

4 thoughts on “Gun ho!

  1. lwk2431 says:

    There are levels of design. “Guns are designed to kill” is the dumb mantra of people who hate guns. But in fact at the highest level guns are designed to protect people and save lives.

    Depending on who’s research you trust, guns in the hands of law abiding citizens are sued anywhere from 100,000 to 2,500,000 times a year to defend the innocent and save lives in America. In the vast majority of those cases no gun is fired. Instead the aggressor learns the intended victim is armed and exits the scene, perhaps to look for a safer (for him) target.

    Based on the evidence of how guns are used to save lives without being fired, it is obvious that ultimately guns are designed to save lives by intimidating the criminal, and violent aggressors.


  2. That’s an interesting perspective. I would still contend that a gun is designed to kill (people, animals, etc). Whether the gun designer hopes the purchaser will only use it to threaten others doesn’t change the fact that they carefully constructed and calibrated it to do as much physical damage as possible. It’s like saying a lock-picking kit is designed to open locks; whether it is used for good (drat! I locked my keys inside…better call a locksmith) or bad doesn’t change the fact that it was designed for one thing. The difference is that picking a lock isn’t usually fatal.
    Your point about guns saving lives as a preventative measure (one could argue the same thing about nuclear weapons during the cold war) is an interesting one and one that I hadn’t considered. I did do a short amount of research using Australian statistics, which are really useful because we had a big “buyback” of guns in 1996 in response to a mass shooting. All semi-automatic and above guns had to be handed in, which reduced the total number of legal guns in the Australian population by about 1/3. Therefore if your theory is correct, we should expect to see an increase in murder rates after 1996…

    I did some research, and found that Australia has such a low homicide rate anyway that it doesn’t give statistically significant results! We seem to have the same number of guns now as we did in 1996 (, and there was a slight peak in homicide rates – all homicide, not just gun-related – 2 years after the buyback (first graph:, which loosely correlates with your theory (but once again, the rate is too small to be statistically significant). But once you throw suicide into the mix, the balance definitely tips in my favour ( It seems like the suicide rate has been in steady decline since hitting a peak in 1997 (
    Of course, all of this assumes that Australia is analogous to the US, but we have a much lower crime rate and a very different culture here so it may mean absolutely nothing!

  3. Food for thought says:

    I don’t believe ‘fingerprint technology’ has made it onto firearms yet; other sensors have, but not fingerprint scanners (to which I assume you’re referring). Happy to be proven wrong.

    And the news article for the Maryland House bill to which you link is for buyers to provide fingerprints during purchase which makes it an administrative control, not an engineering one.

    You get it right in your last paragraph though, despite the attempt at off-kilter humour. How exactly they manage to get things to work with the second amendment and the NRA is anybody guess.

  4. You are right, I should’ve read the article more closely. There is something in existence based on a magnetic ring that you have to wear, but if they were widespread it wouldn’t be hard to get hold of a magnetic ring.
    I’m still amazed that the recent gun legislation didn’t pass. It’s rather sad really.

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