Should We Worry About Apes Learning to Use Handguns?

A gorilla brandishes a gun in a scene from the Walt Disney World attraction Jungle Cruise. Scott Barlow

From a primate packing a six-shooter on his hip in the 1937 western "Chimp the Cowboy," to the 1970's comedy show "Lancelot Link: Secret Chimp," and to 2014's "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes," apes and monkeys have been in a longtime shootout – at least cinematically – with people. But without the magic of the movies, could non-human primates actually fire a handgun?

First, you have to know the difference between monkeys and apes – two different classifications of primates. For monkeys, think tails and cuteness. Baboons and macaques are the larger varieties of monkey, while the smaller varieties include squirrel, howler and spider monkeys, (Miss Baker the space monkey was a spider monkey) and Capuchins, like Marcel from "Friends."


Full Width
The show-business chimpanzee Kokomo, Jr. poses at a desk with a gun, circa 1960.
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

It would be tough for monkeys to be able to shoot a gun. They are quadrupeds, which means they walk on the palms of their hands, like dogs, not upright like humans. And, their hands don't have the anatomy and dexterity needed to hold and fire a handgun.

Primate Power

So, that's one thing all those movies and TV shows got right. If non-human primates were going to fire handguns, it would probably be chimps – or at least some member of the ape side of the family that did the shooting. The family of apes includes chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans – all tailless primates that walk semi-upright, with their hands folded under allowing them to walk on their fists or knuckles and keep sensitive finger pads (like humans have) from contact with the ground during walking, says Susan Kirkpatrick Smith, a physical anthropologist and chair of the Department of Geography and Anthropology at Kennesaw State University in Georgia.

This 1939 issue of British pulp magazine The Wizard contained a story about a gorilla named O'Neil seeking armed revenge on the killers of the human who raised him.

However, says Smith, "Apes have less wrist flexibility than humans. It keeps them from being able to make stone tools in the same way that humans can. If we think about chimpanzees using more primitive weapons than guns, we would think about them using sticks or rocks, hand-held weapons, not projectiles. They don't have near the control of humans, because they don't have the wrist flexibility."

But does this mean they couldn't use a gun? Some primatologists say chimps could be taught, physically, to use a gun or other weapons. They are natural mimics and could copy the actions they see in humans. But, they wouldn't have the cognitive ability to stockpile weapons and go after people. Or would they?

Tools and Weapons

Santino, a chimp in a Swedish zoo, stockpiles rocks to throw at a later time. Scientists say this is a unique display of the art of deception among chimps, evidence of the evolution of higher mental functioning – and perhaps a good reason not to give a chimp a handgun.

Santino may be unique in his thinking, but he isn't the only aggressive chimp around. A study published in April 2015 found that a band of chimps in Senegal routinely makes weapons and kills sleeping bushbabies (a type of smaller primate) for food. But, here's the thing: The weapons are sharpened sticks that the chimps (mostly the females, by the way) use to stab the sleeping bushbabies.

Not all great apes are as violent or deceptive as chimps can be. Bonobos can learn to do many "human" things – build and light a fire, drive a golf cart, even play Pac Man (check out the video below!) But could they be taught to fire a gun? Possibly, but bonobos' hands are not as dexterous as humans' either.

And then there's the issue of hand size. A recent study suggests that chimpanzee hands, larger than ours, are also more specially evolved than those of humans. It might be hard for chimps to fit their larger fingers inside the trigger guard on guns made for human hands.

So, while a chimp and even a bonobo could probably be trained to fire a handgun, you'd be hard-pressed to ensure it fires at the right target, at the right time or that its aim would be any good at all. When it comes to firearms, it looks like we humans will remain the most deadly primates on the planet.