When is a Gun Really a Weapon?
By: William P. Flinn
One of the things we learn early in our training when becoming an NRA firearms instructor is the use of proper terminology. The use of correct terminology and definitions in the classroom is vitally important so that we can develop the proper knowledge, skills, and attitudes about firearms and firearm safety from the very first minute that a firearms class begins. Then, further use of correct terminology helps us to correctly describe the use of firearms as we go about our daily lives. Terminology is used not only to describe the “what” in many cases, but also implies the “how” that is appropriate to the term being used.
Personally, I think that one of the reasons that some people are so frightened of firearms is because of constant exposure to incorrect terminology. Over and over, people have (falsely, in my opinion) been led to believe that the firearm is always used as a “killing machine” of some sort, and that there are no other uses for firearms. The term “weapon” is commonly thrown around when discussing firearms, which seems to indicate that folks don’t really seem to understand the true concept of what firearms are or what they are used for.
What IS a firearm? A firearm, like any other tool, is nothing more than an inanimate, mechanical device. The firearm does not do anything in and of itself – it must be employed by a human being to perform some task. In fact to prove this notion, I placed a web cam near the gun safe to monitor their behavior, just in case something might be going on while I was away. You know – those darn, lazy guns just laid there! Not ONE of them jumped out of the safe and performed any violent acts.
Firearms typically have the ability to hold ammunition cartridges in various amounts, have a hammer and firing pin to cause the ammunition to discharge a projectile, have a trigger mechanism to release the hammer and cause it to strike the firing pin, and have a barrel to guide and stabilize the projectile along a straight and steady path. The firearm also has a handgrip and/or a stock to allow for stabilization of the firearm when it is in use, sights to allow for the proper aiming of the firearm at a target, and a frame to which all of the other components mentioned are mounted.
A firearm is a tool that can be properly used for sport shooting, hunting, and self defense – all of which are proper, legal, and constitutionally protected uses of firearms. The use of firearms is even a part of internationally recognized sporting events, such as the Olympics. Can firearms be used for illegal, violent, or improper purposes? Sure they can – in the hands of criminals or other negligent users. Can firearms be used as weapons? Sure they can – in the hands of our brave soldiers on a battlefield or law enforcement officers in the field.
So when is a gun a NOT a weapon? Are guns built with the sole purpose of being used for killing? I hear it all the time: “guns are meant to kill…” to which we in the pro-gun community typically reply “guns don’t kill, people do.” “But a gun IS a weapon…” is a common statement. The firearm in and of itself is not capable of using itself as a weapon. It takes a human operator with intent for it to be used as a weapon, just as it takes human intent for a knife to be used as a weapon against another human being as opposed to cutting a steak.
In order to answer those statements more fully and shed some brighter light on firearm terminology, firearms and firearm uses, let’s first get into some of the commonly misused firearm terminology:
Terminology Misuse 1: All Guns Are Weapons - If that were true, then it would also be true that all guns are built for the sole purpose of killing human beings (see Terminology Misuse 2 below). We don’t need weapons to harvest game, after all, we typically use hunting firearms instead of combat rifles. Is it necessary to “attack” that paper target or clay pigeon with a “weapon?” I personally have never had to “attack” any inanimate target with a “weapon.” Weapons belong appropriately on the battle field and in self defense situations. That being the case, then it naturally follows that none of my firearms are weapons until I enter the field of combat or against a violent attacker. As a regular citizen, I don’t take them into combat on a daily basis. Firearms can be used as weapons, but there is nothing in any firearms owner’s manual I have ever seen that expressly states that the firearm is always used as, or was built with the sole purpose of being employed as a weapon.
Terminology Misuse 2: Guns Are Meant For Killing - See Terminology Misuse 1 above. Guns are no more built with the sole purpose of killing than they are built for the sole purpose of being used as a weapon. The sole and entire purpose for which a firearm is built is to act as a mechanical device used to safely activate and discharge a projectile from an ammunition cartridge, and provide for a safe and effective launching platform for causing that projectile to emit from the firearm’s muzzle on a straight and consistent path towards a target. That target can be a piece of paper, a tin can, wild game, or a violent attacker. We can’t kill paper, we can’t kill cans, we don’t “kill” animals when hunting (we harvest game), and we don’t intend to “kill” a violent attacker (only to stop the attack).
Terminology Misuse 3: The Sole Purpose of Hunting is to Kill Animals - I only know of two appropriate uses for the word “kill.” Killing as it applies to ending a human life, usually caused by another human (with a car, with a knife, with a firearm, etc.), and when ending a process in the computing environment (kill the process, kill the application, kill the session). All other applications of this term are inappropriate, in my opinion, especially when it applies to hunting. Hunters harvest game. Hunters are responsible for some of the greatest strides in wildlife conservation through responsible and lawful harvesting of game. Hunters actually prevent animal starvation and promote conservation of the species. In sport shooting, the marksman shoots at a paper or other non-living target. That just doesn’t sound like “killing” to me.
Terminology Misuse 4: Violence is Caused by Guns – No: the gun, in and of itself is not capable of violence. Violence is a result of malicious intent, in my opinion. Firearms are not capable of expressing any intent whatsoever. Intent is a result of intelligent thought. Only humans can express intent. Guns can be used for violent purposes, but only by violent humans. Violence happens when an attacker rapes a woman and she has no way to protect herself. Violence happens when a man is stabbed at a gas station and robbed of his vehicle, and he has no way to stop the attack. Guns have actually been used to save lives by those who have intelligently made the decision not to be victimized. That’s not violence. That’s self defense.
At Northern Colorado Firearms Safety Training, our mission is to foster the proper knowledge, skills, and attitudes for owning and using firearms safely. Our philosophy is that a firearm is only as safe (or as dangerous) as the person using the firearm, because firearms in and of themselves have no ability to spontaneously operate themselves. We don’t teach our students about the deployment of weapons, we don’t teach that guns are only meant for killing. We teach that a firearm is a tool to employ in a variety of appropriate circumstances: sport shooting, hunting, or self defense. And above all, we teach firearms safety!