Comfort Gun: A Hot Water Bottle That Packs Heat

Comfort Bottle

Comfort Gun by Francis North, images via Fast.Co

Spotted this gem of a design on Co.Design this morning, adding support to my theory that UK designers/critics are just more comfortable than USers using guns and gun-forms to provoke critical thought.

The Comfort Gun is a hot water bottle that effectively puns on the ritual of sleeping with a pistol beneath one’s pillow. I know people who actually do this. And I have observed that gun possession generally has a strong talismanic aspect– some gun owners are afforded great psychological safety from just knowing that their Colt/Glock/Beretta is close at hand.

But what I love about this design is the way that it flipped this ritual into the space of the cozy and banal practice of sleeping with a hot water bottle. Instead of the sense of preparedness, intrigue, and danger that I associate with the gun-beneath-the-pillow, Comfort Gun makes me think of Grannies in flanel nightgowns and warm glasses of milk. And then my brain jumbles all these impressions together until I have burly gangsters in flannel nightgowns and cozy Grannies holding smoking guns.

It does this, in part, through the color palette certainly (though there are no shortage of fully operational pink firearms) but also the small quarter-inch edge around the pistol-shape. This was probably a result of the vacum-forming process but serves as the main cue indicating a non-operational gun. In my mind, that quarter-inch rim acts like the frame of a painting, removing the form of the thing from the use of the thing. Very interesting.

Kudos to designer Francis North. More information on this design and designer here.

sleeping gun

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Designing the Humanity Out of War: VIDEO of How to Kill People

Remember way back when we talked about George Nelson’s anti-weapons tv show from 1960? Well, the magic of Youtube has made this critical gem available to us all.

Now, Nelson was no lonelygirl15 and the production values are miserable by today’s standards but stick with it and you’ll be rewarded. Things get really interesting when Nelson pulls out a snub-nosed revolver at 13:10 (just after his shout-out to da Vinci). He also discusses the creation of drones around 18:48. Towards the end of the spot, he even calls out the toy industry for teaching our children about the importance of weapons. But one particular phrase continues to stick with me:

“Modern design has a sleek deadliness

unmatched in all recorded history.”

Nelson’s ideas are no less pertinent for our own time. Designers still create objects for war and nations still allocate a large amount of resources for the creation of novel or improved forms of killing. Those improvements further distance those killing from those killed. But does the safety of greater remove come at a price?

 Thank you to gnelsonfoundation for uploading.

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Style over Substance: Re-Designing AR-15s To Undermine Gun Control Bill


Above: AR-15 rifle with a telescoping stock and pistol grip. This gun is an “assault rifle.”

compliant ar15AR-15 with a compliant stock and no pistol grip. This gun is not an “assault rifle.”
(Photo by Cindy Schultz / Times Union) via Times Union

Oh, the futility of legislating gun styling! The NY SAFE Act signed into law by Governor Cuomo was created to limit the sale and ownership of assault weapons, primarily those based on the AK-47 or AR-15 design. However, the bill defines assault weapons not on their lethality but on the largely superficial aspects of military weapons such as bayonet mounts or a pistol grip on the stock. It’s like outlawing guns that are grey.

Gun makers are just going to change how they look and sell the same firearm for more money because it can “pass the ban.” As Rick Karlin in the Times Union so aptly observed:

The modifications aren’t particularly difficult for gunsmiths, who also point out that the AR-15-style rifle, first developed for military use in the late 1950s, has a modular design that makes it easy to add or remove different features.

I suppose that the law could function as a symbolic gesture expressing New York State’s preference for the elimination/control of guns that aren’t associated with hunting. There’s something to be said for affirming a group’s inclination to denounce the kind of weapons that we so often hear about in mass tragedies.

Perhaps the differences between hunting rifles and “assault weapons” can only be found in styling and cultural association. If the ban was based on lethality rather than military features, it would certainly impact more than a few dozen models of gun.

If you’re interested to learn exactly what counts as an assault rifle, here is an illustrated list (PDF) courtesy of NY State.

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Gun Lit: My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun

Emily Dickinson with gun

The first time I read “My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun,” I was left with the impression that the poem’s speaker was using the gun as a metaphor for her own potential, a potential for action and impact that was unlocked by another person–“The Owner”–but that the speaker is the more powerful of the two.

My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun –
By Emily Dickinson


My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun –
In Corners – till a Day
The Owner passed – identified –
And carried Me away –


And now We roam in Sovreign Woods –
And now We hunt the Doe –
And every time I speak for Him
The Mountains straight reply –


And do I smile, such cordial light
Opon the Valley glow –
It is as a Vesuvian face
Had let it’s pleasure through –


And when at Night – Our good Day done –
I guard My Master’s Head –
’Tis better than the Eider Duck’s
Deep Pillow – to have shared –


To foe of His – I’m deadly foe –
None stir the second time –
On whom I lay a Yellow Eye –
Or an emphatic Thumb –


Though I than He – may longer live
He longer must – than I –
For I have but the power to kill,
Without – the power to die –

The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Reading Edition ed by Ralph W. Franklin (Harvard University Press, 1999) via Poetry Foundation

But when I went to find criticism/commentary on the poem, I was greeted with this comment from Brooklyn College professor Lilia Melani:

Most readers feel the power of this poem, which is based on rage. The speaker compares her life to an unused loaded gun and finds joy in fulfilling its purpose to kill. Even if you have never felt a rage so violent that you felt destructive or explosive, can you imagine what such a state must feel like? Does this poem convincingly portray such a rage?

I was like “what? rage? where!?” I associate rage with unchecked ferocity, wildness. But this poem felt controlled. Cold. Precise. Do other people see rage in this? I wonder if it is because of my own personal experience and associations with firearms– I can recall almost viscerally how it felt to hold a gun when I was learning how to fire. I felt very strong and empowered and morally capable since I didn’t feel the urge to shoot anyone. But I knew that I could if I wanted to. I felt very good. Competent. And that is the feeling I get from this poem.

“My Life had stood” is probably one of my favorite poems. There’s a fair amount written about it being a representation of Dickinson’s internal struggle with the power of her writing in an age where poetry was not seen as feminine. If you’re interested in reading more, here’s a medley of excellent criticism compiled by Karen Ford.

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Battle of the NRA Eagle Emblems


Graphic of NRA Blue Eagle, ca. 1933; Records of the National Recovery Administration, 1927-1937. National Archives and Records Administration. Via Slate

Nope. Not that NRA. Apparently there was a National Recovery Administration set up during FDR’s New Deal to aid workers in collective bargaining and the creation of wage standards. The organization’s emblem–an eagle clutching a gear in one set of talons and lighting bolts in the other–would be displayed by participating businesses to show support for the power of American Industry. From Rebecca Onion’s post on Slate:

Wasn’t the government afraid that people would confuse its new logo with the National Rifle Association’s? Although the NRA that’s now a household name was formed back in 1871, in the 1930s the organization was still a relatively obscure educational body, sponsoring rifle clubs and youth programs. In 1934, the National Rifle Association instituted a legislative affairs division, beginning its transformation into the lobbying superpower that it is today.

Must admit that I rather like the graphic logo of the New Deal NRA. I’m afraid it makes the National Rifle Association’s eagle emblem look rather dated in comparison…


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Visualizing The Impact Of Guns

Number of Gun Deaths Since Newtown 5-28-13

“How Many People Have Been Killed by Guns Since Newtown?” Interactive map created by  Slate and @GunDeaths visualizing the toll firearms have taken since Dec. 14.

In Un-Selling The Gun a couple of weeks ago I touched upon the problem of conveying the impact of firearms on the individuals and communities they effect. Humans aren’t always very good at understanding data. In fact, some studies have shown that comprehending specific amounts above the number 3 is still a relatively new skill. And that’s where charts, maps, visualizations, and narratives come in handy. People will go to some interesting lengths to compensate for the limitations of the human brain.

In addition to emotional, first-person stories, gun policy activist Arkadi Gerney once used a “murder truck” (his nickname) to display the number of Americans murdered with guns since the Gabby Giffords shooting.  In his piece on The New Yorker‘s website, he wrote:

On the morning of February 16, 2011, when Mayor Bloomberg launched the truck on a national tour, the digital display read “1,311.” Omar Samaha , whose sister was murdered at Virginia Tech, would captain what was officially called the “Fix Gun Checks” truck on a journey across America.


Image of the “Fix Gun Checks” truck via HuffPo

But the truck and Gerney’s best efforts still didn’t result in the gun control legislation that he’d hoped to pass. Maybe the bare number by itself (well, with a spokesman and his heart-wrenching story) wasn’t enough to get the message across.

Slate has a similar yet perhaps more powerful project called “How Many People Have Been Killed by Guns Since Newtown? in which every individual killed is represented by an icon showing whether they were an adult or child, female or male. The graphic is also sortable by age, gender, and date and is accompanied by a the same data applied to a map of the U.S. and filterable by location (screenshot at top). There’s something about the human shapes that really stuns. Maybe it’s a sense of scale? I can mentally place these people in relationship to my own body, to the scale of an individual person. And then pull out to a macro view of the country or city. This micro/macro pairing just works for me. It’s graphic without being gratuitous. Simple and but not sanitized.

Screen Shot 2013-05-28 at 9.36.07 PM

Speaking of data, there was quite a kerfuffle a few weeks back over the release of a Pew Research report demonstrating that the number of gun deaths has been going down since a peak in the mid 90’s. According to Pew:

Despite national attention to the issue of firearm violence, most Americans are unaware that gun crime is lower today than it was two decades ago. According to a new Pew Research Center survey, today 56% of Americans believe gun crime is higher than 20 years ago and only 12% think it is lower.

Maybe we’re just better at understanding the gravity of these numbers? Perhaps it isn’t that we think crime is statistically increasing. Rather, increased access to information, personal stories, and illustrative data design lets us understand just how bad gun violence is. Perhaps our awareness of firearms-related deaths is increasing even as the actual number has been decreasing?


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Where War Is Child’s Play: War Games at London’s Museum of Childhood

toy soldiersToy Soldier Set, Germany, c.1936, pieces by O & M Hausser and A. G. Lineol. Image via the V&A.

In line with this week’s informal theme of children, guns, and play, the Museum of Childhood in London opened War Games, a new exhibition that explores the material culture of war-themed toys and children’s ephemera.

According to The Guardian’s Mark Brown:

Co-curator Ieuan Hopkins admits they were not short of potential exhibits. “The first thing we did was go through the museum’s collections and the amount of material we had relating to war was incredible, it was quite a surprise. War has always been a part of children’s lives.”

Brown also mentions the exhibitions’ look at war propaganda aimed at children — how toys are so easily co-opted as political tools. It reminded me of a section in last summer’s Century of the Child exhibition at MoMA that featured a similar theme.

I think there’s something particularly discomfiting about the combination of childhood innocence and violent or racist propaganda. Children aren’t usually equipped with the critical thinking skills to know when an image or political message is manipulative. And it makes one question one’s own assumptions and beliefs. If they were stacked between “Clue” and “Monopoly”, would I have been an eager player of the “Get Those Japs” darts in War Games or the Nazi-themed “SAKAMPF” board game from Century of the Child?

Text on the War Games website acknowledges:

War play is controversial. It is actively discouraged by many parents and teachers, as it is thought to encourage aggression. But aggressive play, a type of active play, is not the same as real aggression, in which a child intends to harm.

Research questioning whether war play and aggression are linked is inconclusive. Fears that they are may come from personal beliefs and assumptions influenced by the pacifist and feminist movements of the last fifty years. War play can also bring benefits. It can help children to distinguish good from bad and right from wrong. And it can help them to explore their feelings and understanding of an often violent adult world.

Reminds me of yesterday’s post on prop oriented make-believe. There’s even a section of the exhibition displaying toy guns improvised out of sticks by the curator’s own son. Sound familiar?

War Games is at the Museum of Childhood in London from May 25 through March 9, 2014.

Thanks to @cat_rossi for the tip!

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Guns and Prop Oriented Make-Believe

gun-shaped sticks

 Image via LA Times, Mike Bruce / Hammer Museum. These gun-shaped sticks were collected by the son of artist Rachel Whiteread as a substitute for the toy guns he was forbidden to own.

One thing that really struck me when I was conducting interviews for my MFA thesis was the high number of people who were drawn to firearms through play and fantasy. There was the gun curator who started as a Civil War reenactor, another who specialized in ornate weaponry after a childhood admiring medieval knights, and one whose love of firearms originated with his fascination for the ray gun of Buck Rogers. But it isn’t only curators who are interested in the fantasy component of weapons — the most popular objects on display at the National Firearms Museum were the light sabers for Star Wars.

The theorist Kendall Walton has written about the ways that we use objects and play and fantasy in order to understand abstract ideas and the purpose/potential of objects. He writes:

“We are constantly inventing new games of make-believe and communicating them to each other. This doesn’t mean that we actively participate in these games. Many of them are prop rather than content oriented; our interest being not in the make-believe itself, but in the props. Thinking of the props as props in potential games of make-believe is a device for understanding them.”

I think that to many people, guns (or the idea of guns) are merely props for thinking about relationships of power and our moral obligations to others and ourselves. So many children are drawn to toy guns or biting their breakfasts into a gun-shape for similar, if less sophisticated, reasons. What they’re really doing is thinking through different power relationships. They’re trying on ways of interacting with others and the world.

That’s my theory, anyway.

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TrackingPoint Rifle: A Gun With Agency?


Image of the TrackingPoint rifle from manufacturer’s website

When I came across the story of the TrackingPoint rifle on NPR, “A New ‘Smart Rifle’ Decides When To Shoot And Rarely Misses,” I was really looking forward to untangling the moral implications of a gun that fires when it “wants.” Based on the headline, I thought that the rifle had an auto-lock-and-fire functionality along the lines of a camera that won’t shoot until all variables are within optimal levels. Or a military drone making surgical strikes.

If this was true, the technology would be a huge leap in the direction of seceding personal moral authority to a potentially deadly machine and I was totally jazzed and anxious about what this might mean for the future of guns and gun control and the concept of objects-with-agency. However, the story is slightly different. And slightly less controversial when we get into the details. According to NPR’s Mark Dewey:

The rifle’s scope features a sophisticated color graphics display. The shooter locks a laser on the target by pushing a small button by the trigger. It’s like a video game. But here’s where it’s different: You pull the trigger but the gun decides when to shoot. It fires only when the weapon has been pointed in exactly the right place, taking into account dozens of variables, including wind, shake and distance to the target.

So, as long as the target lock is correct, the gun provides a visual indication of optimal aim. Yes, it dramatically improves the accuracy and (by implication) the deadliness of the rifle. However, the shooter still makes the decision to fire. It is still a human brain that sends the signal to the hand to depress the trigger and initiate the mechanical effect of sending a high speed projectile from the barrel.

Video highlighting the TrackingPoint’s features, from manufacturer’s website

One of the more interesting features of the rifle sight is that it can stream video of the view to a nearby device. I’ve been planning to write a post about Paul Virilio’s War and Cinema and this technology fits perfectly into Virilio’s theories about the emergence of new ways of seeing from the destructive impulse of military and war technology.

I can foresee the creation of a non-gun product made of a camera mounted on a rifle-like object that turns the world itself into a first-person-shooter video game.  The user takes aim and “shoots” real life targets but the device’s computer detects accuracy/points and records it for sharing on social media. The social cache and pride in taking out a 22-point buck could be achieved without actually killing one.

Does such a product already exist?

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Un-Selling The Gun: Anti-Firearms Advertising

An anti-gun advertisement Arkadi Gerney helped to create featuring Omar Samaha, whose sister Reema was killed by Seung-Hui Cho in the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings.

Last week on The New Yorker‘s website, gun policy activist Arkadi Gerney wrote about a deeply personal experience with firearms that lead him to his pro-gun-control career. As someone currently researching in the stories told by firearms advertising, I am also interested to learn about the techniques Gerney used to try and sway people in the opposite direction, to “un-sell” guns in the interest of gun control. Gerney talks about campaigns that worked and didn’t work, saying:

All these efforts depended on survivors and family members telling their stories. Internal public-opinion research we conducted showed that the scale of gun violence made the numbers hard to comprehend. It was important, we determined, to put human faces on the problem. People listen when victims talk to them.

It’s a way of making the abstract concrete. Humans are famously terrible at understanding the full meaning of numbers or complex statistical analysis. In many ways, the American gun control debate is a debate about who controls the gun narrative— the meanings and associations we embed into these objects. As Gerney writes:

The gun issue is emotionally charged—and ripe for emotional appeals. It’s easy to make data-driven arguments for stronger gun laws built on statistical evidence; but that levelheaded approach has never been enough.

Second Amendment advocates know this, too; they’ve developed a case with its own emotional weight, on which the core issue is not guns but freedom. It’s about liberty fought and died for two hundred and thirty years ago, and paid for with blood in fields in foreign lands ever since. Advocates for stronger gun laws would be unwise to diminish the deeply felt sense of history, culture, and liberty that for so many years has motivated millions to send thirty dollars a year to the N.R.A., call a member of Congress, hold a sign at a rally, or run for office.

Gerney goes on to say that “it’s the stories of the people whose lives are changed that can help to permanently change the debate, and thus make our country safer.”

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