Thought Experiment: What Would a World Without Guns Be Like?

Christian Sager gun illustration
What might the world be like if there were no guns? (c) 2017 Christian Sager/HowStuffWorks

Sometimes in the wake of tragedy, you want more control. You wish you could do something to help, to figure out why the world sometimes can be such a scary place.

At HowStuffWorks, there are two things we do to that end: research and write. That's how this thought experiment arose: trying to imagine what the modern world would be like without guns. We don't know what the answer would really be. No one does.


We do have a lot of firearm statistics though: crime violence, police violence, economic impact and even the number of known firearms in the world. And all those stats help to fill in the picture. We've included the sources of those stats as they occur in the piece and at the end in case you'd like to do more digging.

Human nature is a lot more difficult to quantify. It's the variable that makes a world without guns so unpredictable. So maybe the real question we answer with this experiment isn't, "What would the world be like without guns?"

Maybe it's actually, "What do you think your fellow humans are really like?"

Here's one fictional take we've spun out on what a world without guns might be like.  


The View From Mrs. Robertson's

Mrs. Robertson often thought about a gun. Which was strange, because guns hadn't worked for some time — at least since her 90th birthday. Still, she imagined a handgun, with sleek, dark metal. The weapon's pieces fascinated her: the perfectly molded cylinder of the chamber, the striated grips of the handle. The little pins, springs and bolts were the most interesting though, because somehow they came together and made it all work.

Frankly, she didn't understand the science of why guns had stopped working. Something to do with the saltpeter in gunpowder no longer "oxidizing" the right way. At least that's what the newspaper had said. Since it was no longer volatile, the powder couldn't propel bullets down barrels anymore. "Bing. Bang. Boop," as her husband used to say when something was broken.


She'd always steered clear of gun-control debates, but like everyone in the United States, Mrs. Robertson became extremely invested in what the world was like when they all stopped working. She had a slight understanding of how it affected life internationally, again because of the paper. But she knew more about how times were different in the U.S., here in Atlanta, because she could see it with her own eyes.

In the wake of what some people called "The Disarmament," many argued that Americans had been robbed of identity. They believed guns were something symbolic, something exceptional. But Mrs. Robertson didn't think so. They were tools, no more exceptional than the garden rake she used to check for snakes in her backyard. She supposed, with enough physical strength, you could kill someone with one of those, too. But there weren't any laws regulating the sale of rakes.

No, Mrs. Robertson's interest in guns wasn't because they were special to her. It was because the world had changed without them, though humans had remained the same.

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Mrs. Robertson looks on as two young men fight just outside her home.
2017 Christian Sager/HowStuffWorks

This morning she was looking out the front bay window of her house at two young men, shouting insults and waving weapons in the street. The man on the right brandished a makeshift polearm, made from three kitchen knives attached to the end of a broken wrought-iron rod. The man on the left had a red hand ax, the kind you used to see next to fire hoses, with a pick head for breaking windows and doors. 

The disturbance made Mrs. Robertson think about her family, five children and nine grandchildren remaining, and she hoped they were safe. They'd all had their share of arguments over the years. She was one to speak her mind and, since she had raised them, so were they. Guns were one of the topics they argued about the most vociferously back then. Not because of the laws, but because they were afraid another one of them would be taken by gun violence, like her grandson Anthony was before The Disarmament. He was in a band and was fatally shot when someone tried to steal his guitar gear after a late-night gig.

The handgun that killed Anthony was the same one she frequently imagined, though she'd only seen it once in the courtroom, as evidence in a ziplock bag. She still thought of it as just an implement, something to be used. But like any instrument, it depended on what you did with it. A gun was intended to kill something that was alive. That was what it had been used to do.

The paper said around 11,000 more people were alive every year since guns had stopped working. What they hadn't quantified yet was how many people died because of weapons like the boys outside were wielding. Mrs. Robertson thought it must certainly be less. There were fewer homicides, fewer robberies and fewer assaults every year now. She knew all this because her son Jordan and grandson Jordan Junior were both police officers with the Atlanta Police Department. They'd also told her that because there were no guns to fuel illegal distribution and trade, there were fewer crimes committed in general.

Before The Disarmament, Jordan Senior had shot and killed a man who had attacked a woman at the Ponce de Leon gas station with a Swiss Army knife. Her son hadn't known what else to do when he was on duty that night. In retrospect, he learned the attacker was "mentally troubled," but Jordan Senior hadn't received enough training on how to deal with such an assailant without lethal force. Today he carried a crossbow and Taser when on duty.

Jordan Junior had never shot anyone. But his former partner had. That officer had killed a young, black man because he ran away when the officer told him not to. Jordan Junior had been powerless to stop it, the whole thing happened so quickly. Ten thousand people protested on the highway the following day. Both Jordans told her that despite how often it came up in the media, this kind of police shooting actually was rare.

"But that shouldn't excuse it," Jordan Junior once told her.

She was certain Jordan Junior and Senior had martial arts training today or she would have immediately called them about the two young men out in the street. Since The Disarmament, those boys trained more. Both felt there was less tension between the police and the local community. So they never carried their crossbows off duty, like they had their pistols.

Some violence still occurred of course, like these boys in the street. But it was with simple martial weapons or various ranged bows. Before The Disarmament, there was actually less gun violence than there had been in almost 20 years. Some believed this was because more people owned guns than ever before, deterring violence with their own potential firepower. Mrs. Robertson didn't know what to think. But she remembered what her street had been like 20 years ago. Her husband had bars installed on all the windows and doors, just before he died.

There had only been a single mass homicide on U.S. soil since the guns stopped working. Whatever broke them affected many explosives, too. Even the bombs that still worked were far more difficult to make or acquire than the effort it previously took to get a gun. The tragedy that did happen was because a crazy man drove a garbage truck into a Halloween parade. Another tool used by a monster. But not in the way it was intended.

War changed, too. At least that's what her son Daniel said, and he was a sergeant in the Navy. According to Daniel, he mostly fought "by proxy" nowadays, either with drones, simple robots or high-tech weaponry designed for mass destruction. For poorer nations though, Daniel described a return to traditional combat, with makeshift melee weapons and lightweight armor. In the academy, Daniel learned that fewer people died in every American war than the death toll from gunfire in the U.S. since 1968. Mrs. Robertson didn't know how that could be true. But Daniel said it was.

Just like the rest of the Robertsons, Daniel had reason to care. When his daughter had been 12, there'd been a shooting at her school, but luckily no one was hurt. Not to mention Mrs. Robertson's other grandchild had accidentally fired a gun inside his home when he was just a toddler. She had been furious with her son Michael, the boy's father. But he had just shrugged it off.

Today some of the grandkids were all grown-up and went bow hunting together. Hunting accidents with guns had been rare, but were even less so now that most were forced to learn with a bow instead. Two of her nine grandchildren also kept hand crossbows loaded in their homes, for personal safety and peace of mind.

Her son Michael actually owned a railgun, one of those that electromagnetically accelerated projectiles. He always complained about the recoil, and how hot the weapon got. It was huge too, with massive capacitors on its sides that must have weighed 10 pounds each. Daniel frowned on his brother's toy, saying they used larger versions of railguns as artillery cannons on the ships he served on. But Michael always reminded him how well it worked on a hunting trip with the kids, when he'd exploded an entire deer with the thing.

Her sons would often argue about The Disarmament; their sister Hannah had lost her job because of it. She had worked at a Remington manufacturing plant in Huntsville, which closed. Why would the government continue to give the company millions in subsidies when all it produced now were fancy paperweights?

"250,000 people lost their jobs!" Michael would yell at his brothers.

But then their brother James, Mrs. Robertson's oldest, would calmly remind them that while the country lost billions from the economic activity of the gun industry, it also gained even more back in the medical treatment, legal fees, prison costs and health expenses it previously spent covering gun-related violence. The paper said the government had over a hundred billion dollars more a year since The Disarmament, a number Mrs. Robinson remembered because most of it now went into Medicare and Social Security.

Some thought without guns, the world would collapse back into feudalism. Other predictions like an unsustainable rise in the population hadn't come true either, with only 11,000 more people each year. In fact, the biggest problem was what were they going to do with the millions of useless chunks of gun metal they were left with. Some kept them as heirlooms. Others brought theirs to service facilities to recycle and melt down the weapons in exchange for cash. Mrs. Robertson was most proud of her granddaughter Alexis however, who had turned the neighborhood's firearms into a mural that covered the walls of the Rocky Ford tunnel, under the bridge in Kirkwood.

The men in the street were getting even more aggressive now. The one with the ax was swinging it widely to defend against the other's reach with his homemade polearm. They clanged together loudly when the man on the right jabbed forward. If they'd had working guns, one of these men would surely be dead already. If not both. Despite herself, and her thoughts about her family's safety, Mrs. Robertson unlocked her barred front door and stepped out onto her screened-in porch. Then she did what she always had and spoke her mind.

"You two knock that off!" she yelled at them.

Just as she said it, the man with the ax glanced her way, momentarily distracted. That was all the man on the right needed, and he shifted his weapon down and forward, past the other's defenses so the kitchen knives on the pole's end pierced his opponent's abdomen.

The ax man's legs gave out, and he fell to the hot street gravel. That weapon made an odd slurping noise when the owner pulled it out from his victim, like a straw at the bottom of a frozen drink.

"Why'd you do that?" the murderer asked her, only now acknowledging her presence. "You should stay inside when you see someone with a weapon, lady!"

She leaned forward now, so her nose touched the musky porch screen and she said, "That doesn't mean I should stop trying to make the world a better place."



Where possible, we hyperlinked different facts and stats in the article text as they occur, but we've also included our full source list for readers who might find it helpful.