Guns are tools. Like any other tools, they can be either good or poor at achieving their purpose. In an article published in the Winter 2005 issue of Ergonomics in Design entitled "Human Factors Issues in Firearms Design and Training," the authors look at the design and operation of firearms from a human factors perspective. Observations on standardization and the prevention of inadvertent use highlight some important ways in which the human factors/ergonomics (HF/E) community can contribute to the production of safe and effective future firearms.
Some of the problems identified by authors Peter Hancock, Hal Hendrick, Richard Hornick and Paul Paradis include the following:
- Knowledge of how to use one type of firearm doesn't mean a person is going to be competent using other types.
- Different firearms may use the same type of ammunition, but that's where the similarities end.
- You don't have to be shot to be injured by a firearm; sometimes this happens when ejecting a spent cartridge in semiautomatic handguns or catching your hand on the sharp edges of some slide assemblies.
- In some cases, it's nearly impossible to tell when there are still bullets in the chamber.
- Even if there is a manual safety -- and sometimes there isn't -- a red spot may indicate that the safety is engaged, but sometimes it means exactly the opposite.
- Handgun safety training courses are outdated; people taking these courses prior to 2000 got no instruction in safely using firearms to protect themselves at home.
- Safety training does not address the matter of firearms use under high stress, when the operator may be affected physically, perceptually, and emotionally.
What can HF/E professionals do to make future firearms safer? In terms of design, HF/E research can help to determine a recommended standardized design for safeties and cylinder releases. Perhaps there should also be different standards for firearms design for different purposes, such as home defense versus law enforcement. One promising area is the "smart gun," which would recognize and be operable only by the owner, and HF/E input would be a valuable addition to design work in this area. Unfortunately, because of the long life span of firearms (collectors may own century-old guns), it could take decades for any design improvements to be effective.
"If one cannot change the tool to have an immediate effect on firearms safety," the authors say, "...it is possible to promote safer use through training and familiarization." Many accidents happen among users who either never took a safety course or had not had any training for many years -- not to mention the sometimes questionable content of such courses. By addressing the issue of use under stress, fundamental principles of pistol marksmanship, and exposure to more than one type of firearm before a user is considered qualified, training could be more effective.
The Human Factors and Ergonomics Society is a multidisciplinary professional association of more than 4500 persons in the United States and throughout the world. Its members include psychologists, engineers, designers, and scientists, all of whom have a common interest in designing systems and equipment to be safe and effective for the people who operate and maintain them.
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