Gun Control is using both hands
(thanks to for the cover art)

So the question I have set before myself is a relatively simple one: “What is the telos of a gun?” Now before we get too cute here and bring in water pistols, glue guns, or nail guns let’s be clear about our subject. We are investigating what the military types call firearms. On this site, as well as on every other dictionary site out there, you get a definition like this. Gun (noun): A weapon incorporating a metal tube from which bullets, shells, or other missiles are propelled by explosive force, typically making a characteristic loud, sharp noise. Of course that definition includes everything from the kind of giant guns mounted on battleships, to the kinds of handguns carried by law enforcement officers. For the purposes of this essay we can restrict our investigation to small arms which includes rifles, pistols, and machine guns which are capable of being operated by a single person.

A brief trip down philosophy lane will enlighten you to the notion of the telos. Telos is the purpose of a thing, it is the reason for which a thing exists. It is the goal which a thing is actively engaged in trying to achieve. In the history of philosophy you find the telos in the ancient writings of Aristotle, in his Physics and his metaphysics, under the term Final cause. The final cause is sometimes translated as the for-the-sake-of-which, the motivating force which drives a thing or activity to its fruition. So when an artist paints a painting, the final cause or telos of their painting is usually something like this: to sell the painting in order to make money and make a living. Or it could be: to create a brilliant work of art simply because I want to do it. Or it might be: to create a work of art which will become so famous that I the artist will become famous too.

As a side note, Aristotle also thought that naturally occurring things like trees, rocks, and canyons all had a final cause. Modern science tends to throw this into doubt, even though the idea of teleology is still quite popular among theists, who argue that God has designed everything in the world for a very specific purpose.

Yet back to our main point, we can now make sense of the idea that a gun has a telos, a for-the-sake-of-which that causes the gun to be made in the first place by a craftsperson. You see, although I could use a gun for any number of different things, just like I could use a pencil or a screwdriver, the telos of the gun is the purpose for which the gun was specifically made. So although I can use a pencil to hit a baseball, a baseball bat was specifically made to hit a baseball, and a pencil was specifically made to write or draw on a piece of paper. Pencils do not work so well for hammering in nails, and hammers do not work so well for writing letters. So also I could use a gun as a paperweight, but that is probably not the purpose for which the gun was made. So let’s begin by investigating the possibilities.

  1. Form determines function, so the telos of a gun is firing?:

    Let’s get the obvious out of the way, one of the simplest possible ways to determine the purpose of a thing is to look at what it does. This is especially helpful when we see it being operated by a skilled person who is capable of getting the optimum performance out of the device. The skilled shooter will be able to easily demonstrate that the function of a gun is to fire. Generally this means firing a bullet from a cartridge, but the type of bullets and cartridges tend to vary from gun to gun. Still the point here is to determine the purpose for which the gun has been made, and our initial possibility is that the telos of a gun is simply to fire. But we must reject this possibility, because it does not actually answer the question. A gun is designed to fire a bullet, but this is formal rather than a teleological statement. A mechanical pencil is designed to dispense pencil lead, but this is a formal statement about its function, and says nothing about what that pencil is supposed to do within the complex social network of objects and human goals. The telos of one of our human creations is something which is uniquely designed to fulfill one of the goals of human beings. So we do not design things which simple formal/functional goals in mind. The telos of the pencil is communication, it makes marks on paper so we can communicate our ideas to other humans in writing, drawing, and symbols. This brings us to our next possibility, and our first real telos.

  2. A gun is a work of art?:

This sounds good, until you realize that the whole point of any work of art is that the work exists purely as an object of art with no other purpose. When there is another purpose we always add a qualifier. I.e. an icon is a work of religious art, a bridge is a work of architecture, the prints you buy at the store are works of pop art, and so it goes. Now a gun may be beautifully crafted and elegantly designed. Yet a gun is not made solely to be beautiful or elegant, after all it also has the firing function. Besides that it is clear from how guns are used that they are not meant to be mere objects of art. This brings us to our next possibility,

  1. A gun is a security blanket?:

We don’t need to spend much time here. Suffice to say, for some people guns are rather comforting, and give them a feeling of security and safety. They make other people extremely nervous, and anxious. Yet the real reason that guns are not merely tools for psychological soothing is that they are designed, again, to fire, and the firing of a gun has the effect of inducing adrenaline and anxiety. Guns may be calming when they are not being operated, but it is almost impossible to stay calm while a gun is being fired. They are noisy for one thing, and they can also be quite destructive for another. In any case guns are not designed simply to calm our nerves, drugs do that much more effectively.

  1. A gun is a tool for defense?:

Although the rhetoric around guns as tools for self-defense is quite popular, it should be obvious that this makes no sense. For one thing, a gun is a primarily offensive device. It fires a rather small projectile along a strict manually oriented trajectory and is thus quite useless at intercepting incoming missiles. For another thing, our tools for defense include armor, walls, motes, fences, and other things which are designed to halt a person’s progress or absorb the damage from a weapon. Guns don’t absorb damage very well, that is guns that are damaged don’t fire and most guns tend to be shaped so as to propel a projectile, not erect a defense. Yet then why do people say that a gun can defend? Well a gun is capable of stopping an attacker, and thus is capable of defense. Yet a gun is not discriminate in this, and it will stop a child on their bike just as well as it will stop a charging rhinoceros. The telos still eludes us.

  1. A gun is a tool for intimidation?:
    This almost feels right, after all guns are very intimidating. If open-carry laws are supposed to deter crime then this is the real telos for guns. Simply knowing that a person is armed can make you think twice about messing with them. On every cop show ever the cops always point their guns and tell the suspect to freeze or they will shoot, so they are definitely using their guns to intimidate would-be criminals. However this cannot be the primary purpose of a gun, since if it is, then guns need not be designed to fire. In fact a gun which cannot fire ceases to be a tool for intimidation. When the gun is out of bullets, jammed, or inoperable it intimidates no one, except for the person who does not know any of that. This shows us that what makes a gun intimidating is not its appearance, a gun is not scary because it is present, a gun is frightening only when it can function. This leads us to our final possibility.
  2. A gun is a tool for killing people.
    First let me say that when I asked a retired Marine, who had fought in the Vietnam War, what the purpose of a gun was I had a rather interesting exchange. He looked at me in exactly the way that an old soldier looks at a young stupid liberal who just doesn’t understand anything about the world. He then chuckled and said “That’s easy, guns kill people.” Guns are intimidating precisely because what they threaten is your horrible and painful death. Guns can be used to defend certain people by killing people who mean them harm. Guns provide their wielder with a sense of security because a gunman knows that he can annihilate those who might threaten him. Guns are made in an aesthetically pleasing and yet eminently practical design. They fire bullets, but what is better they fire bullets along fixed trajectories. This means that you can aim a gun, hence why most guns have sights and why you need both hands to aim one, in order to focus the destructive force of the gun on a particular target. The oft repeated joke is this “Gun control is using both hands”, since both hands steady the weapon to ensure that your bullets do the most damage against your target.

The telos of a gun is to kill people. The human purpose which the gun serves is the purpose of warfare and murder. Sure we can, and do, use guns to hunt animals for food. Though for that you really only need single shot rifles, since multiple bullets are going to ruin good meat, and handguns are only effective from close range, a range at which most animals run from humans. Besides, we had rather effective means of killing animals with bows and arrows. In addition early small arms were large, unwieldy, and fired one round every few minutes, and that was if you were really skilled. Yet we as humans came up with guns as our preferred method of killing other people. Guns proved very effective against armor of almost all types, and even when they couldn’t be well aimed guns were still quite deadly when fired in groups and volleys.

After all consider the early handgun, the pirate’s mainstay, the flintlock pistol. It carried one shot, took a decent minute to load and had an accurate range of…right next to a guy. You had to carry more than one since only one was pretty worthless, and yet it changed warfare, just like the rifles and muskets before it. Now, rather than crossing swords and testing your mettle against a skilled opponent, you could just kill them. You could point your little boomstick at the person you hated and feared most, pull the trigger and boom, they would be dead. Of course the consequences for missing would be dire, but the handgun was a last resort, a weapon you pulled out when your enemy was right on top of you, and when you really needed to kill them.

Now we can use guns for defense, security, or intimidation, but all of those are secondary. The reason that guns exist, and the reason we keep making them, is because we need them in order to kill people.