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Why Guns are More than Neutral Objects

Americans are familiar with the axiom “Guns don’t kill people, people do”—but what if guns are calling the shots?

  • Christopher B. Strain

On Monday, August 5, 2019, President Donald Trump held a press conference following a weekend of mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, in which more than 80 people were killed or wounded in two separate incidents. President Trump blamed “racist hate” and the Internet, “a dangerous avenue to radicalize disturbed minds and perform demented acts.” He also blamed the “glorification of violence in our society,” including “gruesome and grisly video games that are now commonplace,” and spoke of the need for mental health interventions and red flag laws (also known as extreme risk protection orders). “Mental illness and hatred pulls [sic] the trigger, not the gun,” he noted.

The president’s words echoed the familiar refrain of the National Rifle Association (NRA)–“Guns don’t kill people, people do”—which became an unofficial slogan of the organization as it transitioned in the late twentieth century from an organization for hunters and outdoorsmen into a powerful political lobbying arm of the firearms industry. The phrase entered the American vernacular as an aphorism and popular pro-gun talking point, anchoring one side of the gun control debate.  Americans are familiar with the NRA catchphrase and its seemingly unassailable logic—but what if that logic were flawed, based on erroneous assumptions? What if guns did the killing too?

In 1983, horror author Stephen King published his best-selling novel Christine about an evil automobile that harbors a dark animus. “Christine”—a beautiful 1958 Plymouth Fury, a young man’s beloved possession, his ticket to independence and freedom—exhibits a chaotic bloodlust, craving human life. The car kills, an inanimate object seemingly possessed by malevolent, supernatural forces. What if guns were similar? Not possessed by supernatural forces, per se, but at least “less inanimate” than we realize? And what if that animus were, like Christine, malign?

The NRA’s slogan is a tautology that cannot be easily disproven, commonsensical in its displacement of agency from used to user. Obviously, guns do not aim and shoot themselves and people have always killed one another–even without guns.

“Guns don’t kill people, people do” also doubles rather conveniently as a shield that protects the gun industry from any responsibility for gun-related deaths. Rather than advocating any form of gun control, the post-1960s NRA has consistently suggested other solutions to gun violence—everything from gun locks to tougher penalties for crime. Guns themselves are not part of the problem. Guns themselves are inert.

A fundamental assumption embedded in this slogan is that guns are neutral:  things acted upon, lacking agency themselves. Within this framework of neutrality, guns are described as 1) inanimate objects, 2) consumer goods like any other, 3) tools, and 4) amoral entities.

First, they lack agency. Guns sit in racks, closets, nightstands, gloveboxes, and holsters where they wait to be implemented; without that implementation, they have no life force of their own. Second, they are no different from toasters or blenders, bought and sold in free-market trade. Third, they are utilitarian:  machines constructed of screws, springs, and other metal parts, stamped and assembled by human hands to accomplish a specific task (such as protecting livestock, harvesting game, or apprehending criminals). Fourth and finally, they are neither good nor bad, lacking any inherent moral valence. They can be used for good purposes (for self-protection, say, or to put meat on the table) or for bad purposes (in carrying out a crime, for instance), but firearms themselves exist in a kind of amoral stasis. They are passive receptors, blank tableaux onto which we project cultural meanings.

Again, many of these characterizations seem straightforward and commonsensical. However, there is a body of philosophical research in the field of  technological determinism that supports the notion that guns may be less than neutral: neither tools nor consumer items but rather objects with particular individualities and contexts of usage that tend to give rise to negative outcomes. This academic literature diverges from the familiar assumption that guns are neutral and explores the less familiar notion that they are not, even moving toward the disquieting idea that they might harbor a certain malevolency.

The tenets of gun neutrality are problematic in various ways. If guns are tools, for example, then they are tools designed with the explicit purpose of killing, an act considered in most moral frameworks to be wrong.  They do not have to be used to fire bullets—they can be hung on the wall and used decoratively, for example, or they can be used (rather clumsily) to dig a hole in the ground or stir a pot of soup—but their design indicates the preferred ends for which they were intended to be used.

If guns are consumer objects like any other, then why are they not regulated like toasters or blenders or other common household items?  Why are they not rendered less dangerous through built-in safety considerations, like a ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) designed to protect one from electrical shock? The answer, of course, is that firearms are regulated differently from other consumer items because they are different from other consumer items. Unlike appliances with GFCIs, they are expressly intended to be able to take life. Altering that fundamentally lethal purpose would result in something quite un-gun-like.

Of the four tenets of gun neutrality, the guns-as-consumer-goods claim suffers the most from conflicting messages from the gun lobby. On the one hand, gun manufacturers claim they are producing a consumer product like any other; on the other, they often claim special exemption from the same considerations that govern other manufacturers. They are exempt from federal consumer product safety regulation, unaccountable to the Consumer Product Safety Commission and therefore historically immune from lawsuits filed by victims of gun violence seeking to hold manufacturers accountable and liable for their role in supplying guns to criminals.

Product liability cases involving firearms have been successful only when injury was alleged to have occurred due to malfunction or inadequate instructions or warnings—not when guns have functioned exactly as intended. While there have been many attempts to argue that guns are defective because they are dangerous, the fact that a weapon injures or kills when fired has not traditionally been considered a defect in and of itself in American jurisprudence, namely because the gun lobby was able to gain an exemption for firearms under the 1972 Consumer Product Safety Act, the primary federal law that protects consumers from products that present unreasonable risk of injury.

Of most interest is scholarship by social scientists such as Anthony Hoskin, Gary Kleck, James Tedeschi, and Richard Felson that has pointed to guns not as subjects acted upon but rather as actors in their own right—that is, as active participants in their own use and operation. The intended use and disposition to be used are built into a man-made object, which still requires interaction in order for its power and utility to be realized; in this way, it is intersubjective, not unlike a painting or a sculpture. Pragmatists working in the tradition of William James or John Dewey might argue that interactivities exist not only between gun and user but also between user and designer, manufacturer, and seller. In other words, the knowledge is built into the thing, and that knowledge predicates proper or intended use and users.

A few scholars have carried the pragmatist view even further into the realm of agency. Much like Schrödinger’s Cat or Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, which describe how the act of observing something changes it, the act of using something affects not only the thing used but also the user too. As philosopher Bruno Latour has argued, the experience of possessing a gun actually changes the shooter. “You are different with a gun in your hand; the gun is different with your holding it,” he writes. “You are another subject because you hold the gun; the gun is another object because it has entered into a relationship with you.”

Franklin Zimring, emeritus professor of law at the University of California at Berkeley, has described a “weapon instrumentality” effect in which the presence of a gun increases the likelihood of injury and death—independent of motivation, intent, and usage. Guns alter power relationships between people by extending one’s personal command over a given situation.  Accordingly, the presence of a gun may produce violence by emboldening and empowering an aggressor (or defendant) by giving the wielder the power and courage to act violently in a way they might not normally act. Hoskin has called this phenomenon facilitation. Bluntly stated, guns lend power and embolden those who wield them to act violently.

Guns can thus serve as stimuli for heightened violence: cues for aggressive or violent behavior. In 1967, psychologists Leonard Berkowitz and Anthony LePage argued that guns can act as “aggression-eliciting stimuli.” Frustration and anger can lead people to act violently; because of the learned association between weapons and aggressive behavior, the sight or presence of a gun can evoke aggression in an angry or emotionally disturbed individual.

Noting that the finger pulls the trigger but “the trigger may also be pulling the finger,” Berkowitz further argued that the presence of a gun can elicit negative thoughts along with negative emotions, thereby intensifying pre-existing negative emotion. In these ways, guns provide “stage directions,” according to philosopher Evan Selinger, by prompting certain attitudes, behaviors, and actions. To the average person, the world offers people, animals, and things to interact with; to someone with a gun, it also offers “potential targets.”

In his sci-fi/fantasy novellas about Elric of Melniboné, Michael Moorcock describes the protagonist’s cursed sword, Stormbringer: a huge, wicked blade, deeply carved with strange runes.  Feeding upon the souls of those it kills, the black sword has a mind and will of its own, filling Elric with an irresistible bloodlust, compelling him to strike down friend and foe alike. Guns might not be terribly different from Stormbringer in this regard. As one gang member told political scientist Jennifer Hochschild in her 1995 book Facing Up to the American Dream: Race, Class, and the Soul of the Nation, “a gun want [sic] to get blood on itself… It want to get a body on it.”

It’s jarring to consider guns as actors apart from those who handle and fire them—in part because the most common view of technology is, according to Selinger, the instrumentalist view that technology is value-neutral, subservient to human beliefs and desires, which it neither constrains nor determines. “Guns don’t kill people, people do” neatly encapsulates the instrumentalist view.  In fact, the presumption that guns are neutral is part of a broader notion that technology is neutral—which according to sociologist P.J. Rey is itself problematic, deriving from an effort to absolve the creators of technology from any responsibility for the consequences of their designs.

“From Frankenstein’s monster turning on its creator to Robert Oppenheimer’s own reflection on creating the [atomic] bomb,” Rey writes, “Western civilization has wrestled with the question of where responsibility resides in atrocities facilitated by technology.” Because “its birth—its very existence—is the product of both political forces and values-oriented decision making,” technology is not neutral: neither science nor technology occur in a vacuum. Technological inventions are the product of human hands and minds; as such they are created with certain human assumptions—most of which are both masculinized and corporatized, according to feminist theorist Donna Haraway—built into them.

Like Zimring’s weapon instrumentality argument and Berkowitz & LePage’s aggression-eliciting stimuli argument, Selinger’s “potential target” argument—itself a restatement of the old adage that every problem starts to look like a nail with a hammer in your hand—reflects the main idea of technological determinism: that a human invention does have a kind of animus (as disposition, not as anything specifically negative or hateful) beyond that of other simple objects. With evidence of guns as aggression-eliciting stimuli, as power brokers in human interactions, and as inherently lethal devices, it may make little sense to view them as neutral entities. Given the absence of neutrality in technology itself, it may also be plausible that guns could harbor a kind of animus beyond current understanding.

Insofar as agents or actants can be nonhuman (an increasingly plausible assumption in a world of deep learning, chatbots, pattern recognition, and other AI-driven technologies), it could be that every technological artifact has its own built-in script, capable of guiding a user to play roles in its own story. The hammer metaphor is again helpful here. A hammer is meant to pound other objects and through its design encourages users to do so. Who has held a hammer in their hand and not wanted at some point to hammer something?

Latour has described this transformative implementation as a process which he calls translation, in which a citizen is transformed by carrying a gun, which “adds something” to the act of its use. It instructs, directs, even contributes to its own implementation.

“If I define you by what you have (the gun), and by the series of associations that you enter when you use what you have (when you fire the gun),” Latour writes, “then you are modified by the gun—more or less so, depending on the weight of the other associations that you carry”—and not always for the better. “A good citizen becomes a criminal, a bad guy becomes a worse guy; a silent gun becomes a fired gun, a new [unused] gun becomes a used gun, a sporting gun becomes a weapon.” Translation helps to explain how a handgun kept in a nightstand for use against intruders can become part of a domestic dispute, or how a neighborhood watchman can become a murdering vigilante.

If guns are not neutral objects/tools akin to other consumer goods, and if, as Latour argues, the mere presence of guns can alter the likelihood of violent outcome, then it might also be the case that they engender a particular axiological disposition—which is to say they might tend to be “good” or “bad” (or both). Any device designed and intended to take life can hardly be considered unqualifiedly good or even contingently good if one considers life to be sacred; therefore, all guns, even when used for righteous purposes (e.g., for self-defense) or socially sanctioned purposes (e.g., by law enforcement personnel), probably shade into the realm of necessary evil at best, or into something more onerous at worst—perhaps closer to Christine or Stormbringer than many of us are prepared to acknowledge.


None of these notions have filtered into popular understandings of gun use by everyday citizens. Individuals carry firearms in the belief that guns can thwart attempted acts of violent crime and prevent them from becoming victims; they therefore feel much safer when carrying than not. A 2017 study in the American Journal of Public Health found that 9 million U.S. adult handgun owners carried loaded handguns monthly; 3 million did so every day; and most reported protection as the main reason for carrying.

Ironically, that sense of security may be false. According to a 2015 Gallup Poll, a majority of Americans (56%) think that more concealed weapons would make the United States safer. But economists David Hemenway and Sara Solnick found in their analysis of National Crime Victimization Survey Data that same year that using a firearm did not alter injury risk during criminal victimization.

After criminologists John Lott and David Mustard concluded in 1997 that states implementing shall-issue or right-to-carry (RTC) laws saw significant decreases in rates of violent crime, murder, rape, and assault, their “more guns, less crime” conclusion generated controversy and led to a proliferation of studies exploring the robustness of the study’s findings. After reviewing newer scientific literature on gun policy effects, the National Research Council (NRC) found in 2004 that the data were inconclusive. “Some studies find that right-to-carry laws reduce violent crime, others find that the effects are negligible, and still others find that such laws increase violent crime,” said the NRC report.

Researchers at the Center for Gun Policy and Research at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health controverted Lott and Mustard in 2017 when they noted that concealed carry poses potential threats to public safety. Quicker and easier to obtain than a driver’s license, often issued to persons with criminal histories, concealed carry permits “appear to increase violent crime,” according to the Center. After reviewing city-, county-, and state-level data on the same issue, the Rand Corporation concluded in April 2020 that evidence for the effect of shall-issue laws on total homicides, firearm homicides, robberies, assaults, and rapes is inconclusive, but also concluded that there is limited evidence that shall-issue laws may increase violent crime.

After a COVID-19-induced lull amidst a global pandemic, mass shootings began anew in early 2021 in the U.S. (in Boulder, CO; in Atlanta, GA; in Orange, CA; in Virginia Beach, VA; et al.) and Americans again purchased guns in record numbers. More than 2 million firearms were bought in January 2021, according to a recent analysis of federal gun background-check data in The Washington Post:  an 80 percent year-over-year spike and the third-highest one-month total on record. Both trends are notable—particularly if we have grown overly comfortable with things that might manifest mayhem and destruction in lethal ways we may not fully understand or appreciate.

In light of compelling theories on technological determinism, facilitation, and translation; in light of the possible non-neutrality and hidden agencies of firearms; and in light of new research on the divide between the intent and reality of concealed carry, we may need to alter the axiom “Guns don’t kill people, people do” to something like “People kill people and guns do too,” more “both/and” than “either/or.”

While more research is needed, incorporating theories of technological determinism into instrumentalist perspectives on the neutrality of firearms in the United States might inform not only common assumptions about potential dangers but also policy implications and commonsense reforms. Technological determinism problematizes the “right hands/wrong hands” argument (i.e., that guns must be kept out of the wrong hands, lest “bad guys” do harm with them) by suggesting that all firearms can have a corruptive effect–even in the right hands of good guys.


Christopher Strain is Professor of American Studies at the Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College of Florida Atlantic University and Affiliate Scholar at the Regional Gun Violence Research Consortium at State University of New York (SUNY)’s Rockefeller Institute of Government. His books include Pure Fire: Self-Defense as Activism in the Civil Rights Era (2005); Burning Faith: Church Arson in the American South (2008); and Reload: Rethinking Violence in American Life (2010).


Portions of this essay appeared in Christopher B. Strain, “Evil Black Guns: Hate, Instrumentality, and the Neutrality of Firearms,” The Journal of Hate Studies 11 no. 51 (2013-2014): 51-72.


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