Designing a “better” gun

As one of my favorite gigs, I work with Frances Anderton on the KCRW show “DnA: Design and Architecture,” which looks at current affairs and cultural issues through the lens of design. This week we produced a show that I’m extremely proud of, on the topic of guns in America, and I hope that you’ll take a few minutes to listen to it. (You can listen to the episode here.)

We hear from some voices you may not have heard in the gun debate. Design writer Barbara Eldredge has some incredibly insightful thoughts gleaned from writing a thesis on firearms design, including interviews with gun manufacturers and design museums who refuse to feature guns in their collections. We also hear from a manager of the weapons department at a local prop house, who talks about how films and video games have popularized certain brands of guns, and author and gun safety activist Tom Diaz confirms how gun manufacturers engage in mutually profitable product placement deals with filmmakers. The show also features the first radio interview with Michael Guslick, the engineer who gained a lot of attention from the design community after he posted photos of an AR-15 made from 3D-printed parts (one of which I’ve uploaded above).

While working on the show I was reminded of another excellent story about design and guns, written by my friend Alice Twemlow for a 2007 issue of GOOD, which featured this extremely controversial cover:

In her piece, Alice makes the case—which many designers agree with—that the AK-47 is one of the best examples of “good” design:

“An AK-47 rifle, for example, makes use of sound and appropriate materials and it demonstrates other criteria of good design, such as solid workmanship, efficiency, and suitability of purpose—the gun was designed so that nothing, from sand to ice, could get in and prevent it from firing. Plus, its robust and “honest” appearance is pleasing. For many, the AK-47 is a classic in the annals of good design (it also happens to be most popular firearm in the world). But the question then is: good for what and for whom?”

Our show aired the day before Barack Obama revealed a sweeping proposal to curb gun violence in this country. As I read through the plan that the Obama administration has proposed, I found that a lot of what I learned on the show helped me to think more critically about my beliefs. And while I know this issue is far more complex and nuanced than we could begin to address in a half-hour show, two points became very clear to me:

1) Guns as objects are captivating, seductive and sometimes—frankly—beautiful parts of American culture. That’s not going to change anytime soon.

2) The gun industry has a responsibility to design a safer experience both for the people who want to own those objects for sport or personal protection, and for the people gun-owners live with.

Yes, I said design. This is a design problem.

And there’s a call for design innovation right there in the Obama plan:

Direct the Attorney General to issue a report on the availability and most effective use of new gun safety technologies and challenge the private sector to develop innovative technologies

On the show, Diaz says some of these technologies already exist. One example is “smart guns” which have biometric triggers so only the legal, licensed owner of the gun can fire them. (Not that I’m saying we need to make more of these new guns—how about a way to retrofit the guns that are already out there?) Yet designing a safer gun is not the industry trend, says Diaz. Instead, manufacturers are focusing on designing more powerful firearms, which can also be the most deadly.

Like other countries which have initiated stricter gun laws and comprehensive gun buyback programs—see this op-ed by the former prime minister of Australia, where there has not been a mass murder since new laws went into place in 1996—the U.S. has an opportunity here. I believe we could lead the global conversation around innovative firearm safety. We could design a “better” gun.

This all might sound impossible But as many people have pointed out in the last few weeks, there’s precedent for this. Look at the changes made in the auto industry during the last century, as cars were required to add seatbelts and airbags as part of increasingly strict safety regulations. The fatality rate plummeted.

The decisions that saved lives were made by car designers.

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