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Perspective: Technology of the gun

Antonio Grosz

I want to talk about guns. But I want to do so in a way that is different.

I want approach guns as a problem with technology — or better stated, the way we think about technology. Technologies, we tell ourselves, are tools or instruments that are value neutral. A technological innovation — like the computer — is neither good nor bad. What really matters is how one decides to use it. And when educators like myself need to provide students with an accessible example of this, the gun has been the go-to illustration. So to this extent, the NRA is right: Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.

But there is something missing from this explanation — something initially identified by the German philosopher Martin Heidegger. Heidegger does not dispute the instrumental definition. The problem is that it is only half right. This is because technologies are never neutral. They frame different sets of possibilities and different ways of seeing and acting in the world.

A clock, for instance, is not just a tool for measuring time, it makes time as a measurable quantity available to us in the first place. The same is true of the gun. It is not just an instrument of killing, it makes certain kinds of killing possible. The fact that there were no mass shootings during our nation’s founding may have less to do with the user of the device and more to do with the fact that the muzzle-loaded musket did not make such actions possible.

Northern Illinois University professor and author