The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) has awarded a Dangers and Opportunities of Technology: Perspectives from the Humanities grant to Jennifer Tucker, Professor of History at Wesleyan University, and Stephen Hargarten, Professor of Emergency Medicine at Medical College of Wisconsin, (MCW) and the senior policy and injury science advisor for the Comprehensive Injury Center at MCW. The NEH grant supports their collaborative study Engineering Safety into U.S. Firearms, 1750-2010: Inventions, Manufacturers, Outcomes, & Implications. The two-year scholarly investigation is hosted at Wesleyan University within the Center for the Study of Guns and Society, which was established in 2022 with the aim of fostering historical research on firearms in culture and strengthening academic and museum collaborations.
In America, firearms are widely discussed through the lenses of laws and ownership, gun violence statistics, and the contested history of the right to bear arms. A firearm is a technological object, and it is important to study the way in which changing technologies influence what firearm products are designed, manufactured, marketed, and sold.
Firearms are designed to kill. But they can also endanger the lives of the operator, and bystanders. So, efforts to make firearms safer to use have long been integral to their design–from the introduction of trigger guards to electronic locking systems. The story of the evolution of firearm safety mechanisms is an important and mostly neglected story in the history of technology and culture. While there have been many excellent studies on American corporate involvement in gun manufacturing, the story of the technological development of firearms as engineering artifacts is little known outside of collectors and manufacturing magazines. This study aims to offer the first description and analysis of efforts by manufacturers to improve the safety of firearm productions and munitions in the U.S. since the 1750s.
Key to Hargarten and Tucker’s study will be investigating and collecting information from historical online patent records, including initial identification of important technological developments and their entry into a historical database. Thousands of such patent applications have been filed in the U.S. and Britain for firearm safety product inventions from the 1700s to today. These include, for example, the introduction of doglocks in the early 1700s; grip safeties introduced by Smith & Wesson in the 1880s; loaded chamber indicators in the 1920s; drop safety technology in the late 1960s; and smart gun technologies introduced by Sandia Labs in Los Alamos, New Mexico in 1995 (Weiss et al 1995). They also include design models for storage containers, anti-theft devices, and smartphone technologies.
While materials focused on human behavior are of great interest to this study, the main focus for this project is the less studied–but critical–subject of product design: the tangible manifestation of ideas about human use that are incorporated into firearms design. Hargarten and Tucker want to better understand the nature of attempts to make firearms safer, whether designed to reduce accidental injuries and deaths to their users (e.g. trigger guards), or introduced to the market with the idea of reducing harm to the general public (e.g. through personalized identification devices, such as smartgun technology, that restricts use to verified users).
“We believe that Engineering Safety into U.S. Firearms has the potential to deepen understanding of a critical contemporary social and cultural issue affected by technology: the growing number of injuries and deaths related to gun possession and use,” Tucker said. In 2020, the most recent year for which data is available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over 45,000 people died from gun-related injuries in the United States.
Meanwhile, courts all the way up to the Supreme Court have wrestled with the issue of how to define the category “firearms,” often looking to historians of technology for guidance. Design changes in firearm and ballistics technology have increased their lethality exponentially since the 1700s, but the term “gun” persists as a shorthand for products as different in design and capacity as flintlock muskets and AR15 rifles. Similarly, the term “bullet” is used to denote products that differ greatly in their capacity to cause extensive tissue damage (from buckshot pellets and soft lead bullets to the controversial Black Talon ammunition, introduced to the police market by Winchester in 1991, and so named for its metal “petals” designed to expand on impact to make wound channels wider). It also encompasses jacketed hollow-point bullets, which are widely marketed and sold in the U.S. today as personal protective armor for self-defense. These are designed to fragment on impact, increasing the damaging power of the bullet by decreasing what is sometimes referred to as its “over-penetration” (its chance of exiting the body). Studies conducted by project co-director Hargarten and colleagues have found that the kinetic energy of a bullet relates directly to its wounding potential.
“This study provides us support to systematically attain valuable information about the history of firearm safety patents. One can only look to the automobile and its history of safety designs that began in earnest in the 1960’s and see the benefit of safer cars, leading to fewer injuries and deaths. We hope that our study will inform firearm safety and potentially lead to a similar outcome of fewer deaths and injuries,” Hargarten said.
Tucker and Hargarten expressed thanks to the NEH for the award, saying “we are humbled and inspired to be part of the group of recipients and awards this year, and are looking forward to sharing and discussing our findings soon.”
Firearms and ballistics are at the center of public debate in the U.S. today. They are technologies that are associated both with danger (in the form of gun violence) and safety (in the form of claims that firearms offer personal protection). The Dangers and Opportunities of Technology NEH funding affords a rare and valuable chance to apply humanities methods to a key safety issue of the U.S. The grant-funded collaboration from Oct. 1, 2023 to Sept. 30, 2025 will result in publications, presentations, brainstorming workshops, conferences, and more throughout the period of study.
ABOUT THE NATIONAL ENDOWMENT FOR THE HUMANITIES
Created in 1965 as an independent federal agency, the National Endowment for the Humanities supports research and learning in history, literature, philosophy, and other areas of the humanities by funding selected, peer-reviewed proposals from around the nation. Additional information about the National Endowment for the Humanities and its grant programs is available at: www.neh.gov.