David Stairs

Another day, another mass shooting. We’re led to believe by television that Mayhem is a guy in a suit, played by actor Dean Winters, who causes mass upheaval wherever he goes. If only it were that simple.

Glock semi-automatic pistol designed by Gaston Glock

The sheer cupidity of newscasters clucking their collective tongues while pols dole out “thoughts and prayers” like medieval indulgences, one more for our charm bracelet of disasters, stoking our collective shame. In a land of cowboys, everyone takes the gunslinger for granted. Of course he’s got to gun someone down, that’s the way of the West isn’t it? But the idea that it has to be school children, or families shopping at malls, or elders gathered at a prayer meeting seems a bit antithetical to classic Hollywood notions of good and evil.

In 2020 nearly 20,000 Americans died from gun violence. This does not include an additional 24,000 gun-related suicides. Taken together, multiples more people died by guns than in motor vehicle accidents (16,000+). Whether the work of a militarized police that spews lethal force in all directions, or a trigger happy stand-your-ground “constitutional carry” populace, it wasn’t always this way.

The accelerating epidemic of gun deaths in America sits close by the door of the firearms industry and the NRA. At the 150th year since the founding of the NRA, the organization has been on a 50-year rampage in its reinterpretation of the Second Amendment. Originally a collection of sportsmen, during its first century the NRA often supported gun control legislation, especially during the gangster-ridden Depression, and again after JFK was assassinated. NRA officials in the 30s were actually on record as being opposed to general arms carrying. This changed in the 1970s when the current phase of “gun rights absolutism” began.

In the mid-70s, as a design student intern at a small Providence ad agency, I designed a brochure supporting handgun control. On the outside it said, quite unpoeticly, “Guns Kill Kids……..” Then, when one turned the page it continued “…..and Everybody.” Pretty direct, since that’s what guns are designed to do. This was six years before John Hinckley Jr. shot and paralyzed James Brady in an attempt on Ronald Reagan’s life, and nineteen years before the gun control law bearing Brady’s name became law in 1994.

Remington Bushmaster assault rifle with silencer

Current levels of mayhem can be dated to 2005’s Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act which largely immunizes gun manufacturers from liability suits in the event their product causes death. There is some leeway in interpretation, and in 2019 Remington was found liable for the manner in which it advertised its Bushmaster, the weapon used in the Sandy Hook killings, as a rifle capable of mass destruction. But generally, new gun control legislation is more often held to be “unconstitutional,” a position strongly maintained by the Republican Party in contradiction of all historical interpretations.

How do we get out of this self-perpetuating nightmare? The notion that more guns will make us more secure can only be viewed as an industry advertising cliché when we are awash in guns. And laws legalizing open carry or empowering teachers to carry guns at school are the last redoubt of the lunatic fringe who define security as having the ability to kill anyone.

Perhaps industrial designers should take a Hippocratic Oath to “do no harm” by refusing to participate in the design and manufacture of firearms. Of course, where profit is involved, it will take more than an ideological stance to stem the rising tide of blood.

As the 21st century rolls on, this big, complex, fraught thing known as modern America is going to have to come to grips with its 18th century frontier freedoms and finally admit that some forms of freedom are really slavery by another name.

David Stairs is the founding editor of the Design-Altruism-Project.

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