Are Handguns Designed to Kill?

Man, I’m tired of hearing lazy arguments and this one is the laziest. It’s exclusively parroted by people who don’t know what they’re talking about. You’ve all heard it or seen a version:

Handguns are ONLY designed for one purpose: murdering people.

Rather than argue with a million lazy commenters on Reddit or CBC news articles, I thought I’d write one article to dispute the claim and add the nuance that people hate to include into their soundbite quips. They can’t say “All handguns are used for is murder” because they’re used for so much more that it’s too obvious and easy an argument to beat. So instead they say they’re designed for killing exclusively. It’s a dog whistle to anti-gunners and it’s factually incorrect. Yes, all handguns can kill and that’s an important design feature of many of them, just like bow and arrows can kill, or all samurai swords or Bat’leths. To suggest that it’s all they’re good for is incorrect. Let’s talk about that “only designed for” bit!

A Crappy Handgun Design Checklist

  • Does it murder people real good?

A Real Handgun Design Checklist for a Modern Handgun

  • Uses modern materials and manufacturing practices to keep quality high and price low
  • Uses tough finishes that keep the handgun looking great and operating for decades and prevents rust
  • Uses components that’ll last for tens of thousands of rounds with minimal maintenance costs. Most handgun barrels are made to last up to 100,000 rounds.
  • Uses common cartridges that the customer might like
  • Uses interchangeable grip panels so it fits everyone from the biggest dudes to the most petite ladies
  • Is simple to disassemble and clean
  • Is made to be reliable in dusty or dirty conditions
  • Has easy to use safety features to prevent the gun from accidentally going off
    • A Glock has 3 independent safety mechanisms to prevent accidental discharge
    • You could drop most modern handguns down a flight of stairs and they won’t go off on their own
  • Uses an appropriate sighting system: fibre optic for competition, red dot sight for duty or competition, tritium night sights for home defense, etc.
  • Uses common parts so that aftermarket parts can be added to change the function or adapt the pistol to different uses

Handgun Cartridges are Designed as a Compromise

All of my competition handguns are chambered in 9mm: which is one of the cheapest and weakest centerfire pistol rounds and also the most common. How weak is it? 9mm clocks in at around 350 ft-lbs of energy. 300 Winchester Magnum, a popular hunting rifle cartridge, develops about 4,000 ft-lbs of energy: more than 10X the power of the pistol round. That raw power makes the rifle cartridge far more lethal than the pistol cartridge. According to this study, rifle and shotgun wounds are 2-3X more lethal than typical pistol rounds on people.

Hunting cartridges like the 300 Winchester Magnum cartridge were designed to kill big game animals ethically and quickly, with very few compromises. The 9mm, like most pistol cartridges, are chock full of compromises. The 9mm uses a compact, relatively low pressure design. It was designed with compromises so that it could fit in pistols with a small grip, not beat up the metals of the time (9mm was designed in 1901), have low recoil, and be cheap to manufacture. Does that sound like the designer’s boss was breathing down their neck about lethality? Lethality is so poor, that most big game hunters would be appalled if their friend showed up to go deer hunting with a 9mm firearm.

The 300 win mag cartridge shown in the picture below cost $3 while the 9mm round is $0.25 and the 22LR is $0.07. Deer hunters would see that $3 as a small price to pay for fantastically lethal and ethical performance on big game animals, while people shooting paper targets might opt for a cheaper round with less recoil.

A visual difference of the power and scale of pistol and rifle cartridges.

All Handguns Are Designed to Kill?

Competition Pistols

Here are a few pistols I’ve used for 3 gun sport shooting. They’re either designed exclusively for competition or were easily modified for competition shooting.

My CZ Shadow is 3 lbs, huge, and hard to conceal. They’re also $1300 new, not a great choice for a gangster on a budget, but very popular among sport shooting competitors

 

Modified Norinco NP29 9mm 1911

This Norinco 1911 is also large, also pretty heavy, and concealability is poor with so many controls poking out

 

This modified Glock 34 has a sandpaper grip that’s great for competition, but it’d snag on clothing if carried concealed. It also has a massive magwell that’d “print” through a shirt and ruin the concealment

 

Is this competition pistol designed to kill people?

 

Hunting Pistols?

There are some big, bad revolver cartridges that approach rifle performance and these cartridges are favored for hunters who choose to hunt big game. Revolvers made for these big rounds are large in size, heavy, they usually have long barrels, and some will have a small scope or red dot on top. The Magnum Research BFR is an extreme example of such, and at 5 lbs, you might as well just get a rifle, but some people prefer to have their hands free walking through the woods. As many of those BFR’s that there are in the US, I can’t imagine a crime has ever been committed with one because it’s not very cool with gangsters and they’re very expensive.

 

Cowboy Pistols?

Some people like old western style pistols. So many people, that there are companies that just make reproduction copies of those older style handguns. I can’t say that blackpowder pistols are my jam, but they look cool and some people really like them. It’s hard to imagine that a lot of gas stations are getting knocked over these days with 1851 Navy’s in hand, even though they were originally designed as a military firearm. While fantastic on horseback back in the day, you don’t see gangsters using them in drive-by’s these days.

So Why Are There Still So Many Murders with Handguns?

Handguns are still, by far, favored by criminals. Why?

They’re concealable. Here in Canada, we’re limited to larger, less concealable handguns that have a minimum barrel length of 105mm, so many criminals prefer to smuggle the cheapest, smallest handguns in from the US. They’re more effective and quicker to use than a knife. They’re fast to deploy for defense and good for hit and run tactics that gangs perform.

Even though handguns are seriously restricted in Canada, criminals still take the risk to steal and smuggle them in from the US or abroad.

In Canada, handgun ownership means:

  • Getting a higher level firearms license called an RPAL. You’ll be checked automatically nightly against police records.
  • This comes with additional storage requirements. You can’t just leave a loaded Glock in a nightstand. It has to be unloaded and trigger locked inside a container that’s also locked, or locked up in a gun safe (and still unloaded).
  • Restricted firearms are only approved for transport with government permission called an ATT (Authorization To Transport.) You can get one of these to go to the range or to a gunsmith.
  • You can’t hunt with a handgun. Too bad, because a .22 handgun would be great for grouse hunting and keeping your hands free to push through the bush

Are Handguns Only Designed to Murder People?

NO

People who say “handguns are only designed for killing people”:

  • don’t understand the variety and compromises in handgun and handgun cartridge design
  • are touting their uninformed opinion as if it’s a fact, like they’ve cracked the secret code of handgun designers everywhere
  • think that the object itself is evil/responsible and thinks this whole “designed for” argument is the silver bullet to helping their case

Many handguns are designed as lethal weapons, similar to how long bows, muskets, samurai swords are designed as lethal weapons. But that’s not ALL they’re designed for and to suggest otherwise means you’re discounting their use for target practice, collecting, or other uses.

If you’ve said this line in the past but you’ve still made it this far, congrats! Hopefully I’ve convinced you that there’s more nuance to the debate. Our society ignores nuance too much when it’s inconvenient and it makes for dishonest rhetoric and idiotic discussions. We should have better informed debates when we’re talking about issues and not just parrot soundbites that are incorrect.

Bonus round: Do limited capacity magazines slow down mass shooters?

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