Gun designer’s dying words give pause for reflection

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The man who created the AK-47 is in the news again this week. Not for the weapon he developed decades ago, or for his death last month, but for his apparent remorse.

Mikhail Kalashnikov, who developed the deadly assault rifle nearly 70 years ago, wrote a letter to the head of the Russian Orthodox Church a few months before he died. In the letter, Kalashnikov asked whether or not he was responsible for the hundreds of thousands of people who have been killed and will be killed by his famous rifle.

Michael Kalashikov image

“The pain in my soul is unbearable,” wrote Kalashnikov. “I keep asking myself the same unsolvable question: If my assault rifle took people’s lives, it means that I, Mikhail Kalashnikov, … son of a farmer and Orthodox Christian am responsible for people’s deaths.”

And not just a few people’s deaths. With over 100 million AK-47s spread throughout the world, the weapon is responsible for more gun deaths than any other gun.

Kalashnikov’s apparent confession of guilt is a marked change from statements he made in the past. In 2007, he told the Associated Press that he did not feel responsible for deaths from the weapon he designed.

“I sleep well,” said Kalashnikov. “It’s the politicians who are to blame for failing to come to an agreement and resorting to violence.”

In other words: guns don’t kill people, people (and in this case, governments) kill people. That phrase, repeated to exasperation on social media and online commenting boards, sufficed for years for Kalashnikov. But in the last 6 years, that line of reasoning suddenly stopped working for him. Why?

Perhaps because Kalashnikov had an epiphany that came from the prospect of being close to death. Or, perhaps he met people whose lives were changed for the worse based on the consequences of designing the AK-47. We’re not likely to ever know what made Kalashnikov change his mind, but that change is worth noting because at the root of Kalashnikov’s questions is a much simpler inquiry: What is my responsibility to the consequences of the choices I make? What is my responsibility to my fellow man?

The answer to this question was perhaps phrased most eloquently by the 16th-century poet-philosopher John Donne. “No man is an island,” warns the poet. “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.”

In other words, we are all ultimately responsible not only for the consequences of our own choices, but for the effects of the choices as well. That responsibility stems from the interconnectedness of human beings. The choices we make have real consequences on the other human beings that we live and work with. Remembering that responsibility will not absolve us from the guilt of our choices, but it might help us to consider our choices more fully.

We will perhaps never know why Kalashnikov had such a sudden change of heart regarding the weapon that dramatically altered world history–for better or for worse. These questions, just like Kalashnikov said in his final letter, are unsolvable. But they are questions worth visiting, over and over.

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