Human Rights

Inventors of Killing Machines Like the AK-47 Often Regret Their Creations

It's hard to know precisely how a tool of destruction will be used.

Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov, the inventor of the AK-47 assault rifle, died in 2013 at the age of 94. Though he often shrugged off criticisms that he'd given the world a tool that has helped murder millions (he once compared himself to a "woman who bears children,” declaring himself “always proud” of his creation), months before his death, he revealed intense remorse. In an April 2013 letter to Russia's Orthodox church, Kalashnikov said a profound sadness had dogged him in the final years of his life. "My spiritual pain is unbearable,” the gun inventor wrote. “I keep asking the same insoluble question. If my rifle deprived people of life then can it be that I...a Christian and an orthodox believer, was to blame for their deaths?"

The letter was made public in 2014, after being published in the Russian newspaper Izvestia and later picked up by Western outlets. The missive offers an unvarnished look at a man who, taking stock of his life, came to regret what he once considered his greatest achievement and contribution. "The longer I live," Kalashnikov continued, "the more this question drills itself into my brain and the more I wonder why the Lord allowed man the devilish desires of envy, greed and aggression.”

The Russian church—like its American Christian counterpart and religious entities since the beginning of time—reassured Kalashnikov that it was totally okay with murder as long as the act was committed in the name of the state. (“If the weapon is used to defend the Motherland, the Church supports both its creators and the servicemen using it,” a spokesperson noted.) This is not surprising, unfortunately; religion is gonna be religion. What’s more interesting is Kalashnikov’s lamentation about his part in making a killing machine, a sadness that seems to have gradually overtaken him across the years. While the letter contained Kalashnikov’s most intense expression of remorse, it was not his first sign of regret. A decade earlier, Kalashnikov admitted in an interview that he "would prefer to have invented a machine that people could use and that would help farmers with their work—for example, a lawnmower."

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As Rebecca J. Rosen noted in the Atlantic, “that's the thing about building weapons-grade technologies: You can't control their use.” Einstein regretted signing a letter to President Roosevelt warning of Germany’s potential to produce atomic weapons—a letter that ultimately led to the creation of the Manhattan Project and the development of the atomic bomb. Einstein, a pacifist, never worked directly on the effort, but regretted even tangential involvement in the project. "Had I known that the Germans would not succeed in producing an atomic bomb,” he later said, “I would have done nothing.”

Similarly, Alfred Nobel is said to have willed his fortune to establish the Nobel Prizes, particularly the peace prize, as a sort of penance for creating the deadly explosive dynamite. Arthur Galston, whose research led to the development of Agent Orange, “was deeply troubled by the part his work played in extending war into environmental destruction, spoke often about his sense of guilt and responsibility, and became an extraordinarily articulate antiwar activist who made many trips to Vietnam and China, focusing always on the dangers of Agent Orange.” Weapons-grade pepper spray inventor Kamran Loghman appeared on Democracy Now! to discuss aggressive and abusive police use of his invention on peaceful protesters around the country during the time of Occupy Wall Street. “I saw it, and the first thing that came to my mind wasn’t police or students, was my own children sitting down, having an opinion, and their being shot and forced by chemical agents,” Loghman said. “The use was just absolutely out of ordinary, and it was not in accordance with any training or policy of any department that I know of...I feel it’s my civic duty to explain to the public that this is not what pepper spray was developed for.”

Eugene Stoner didn’t live to see the weapon he invented, the AR-15, used in any mass shootings. But his family maintains that he would have been revolted to learn that the rifle is now used by civilians in any capacity, and heartbroken to see it employed in civilian mass killings in America. In 2016, Stoner’s adult children and grandchildren told NBC News that the late Marine was an "avid sportsman, hunter and skeet shooter.” But they insist he had “never used his invention for sport. He also never kept it around the house for personal defense. In fact, he never even owned one.”

"He died long before any mass shootings occurred. But, we do think he would have been horrified and sickened as anyone, if not more by these events,” Stoner’s family told the outlet, days after the Pulse nightclub massacre, where the killer used an AR-15 to kill 49 people. "After many conversations with him, we feel his intent was that he designed it as a military rifle.”

"What has happened, good or bad, since his patents have expired is a result of our free-market system," Stoner’s family said. “Currently, a more interesting question is, ‘Who now is benefiting from the manufacturing and sales of AR-15s, and for what uses?'"

Kali Holloway is a senior writing fellow and the senior director of Make It Right, a project of the Independent Media Institute.