Definition Series - Part 1: "Gun"
by Kirk Lawson

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Firearms ownership is growing in the U.S. More and more new people are entering the community as lawful owners. While some have grown up with firearms in their family, a great many of these new entrants have limited experience. To their credit, they are actively searching training, instruction, and are reading to keep themselves up to date and safe.

However, as with any hobby or lifestyle, there is also a lot of terminology, both official and slang, which surrounds the subject and firearms are no different. Getting the "right" terminology can be intimidating for new owners who are sometimes worried that they will be ridiculed or marked out as ignorant.

To address this growing need for information, we will spend some time looking at the "definition" of common terms, both technical and slang.

We should start with the term "gun." I know what you are thinking. "I already know what a gun is." But it may not be as simple as you think. The Federal definition of what a gun is tends to be just a bit more unusual than what you might think.

According to Federal law:

Definition of a Firearm

For purposes of § 922 and § 924 violations 18 U.S.C. § 921(a)(3) defines a "firearm" as:

A. any weapon (including a starter gun) which will or is designed to or may readily be converted to expel a projectile by the action of an explosive;
B. the frame or receiver of any such weapon;
C. any firearm muffler or firearm silencer; or
D. any destructive device. Such term does not include an antique firearm.

[ ref: of Federal Firearms Laws - 2010.pdf ]

This is actually a huge subject and really smart guys, such as firearms lawyer Adam Kraut of "The Legal Brief" [] spend a lot of time discussing it. But the "reader's digest" version is this. In Federal law, a gun is a machine which is designed to spit out bullets when something that burns fast or explodes expels the bullet from it.

...OR a machine that can be "readily" converted to do so. That means, that if the government decides that the machine is more-or-less easily converted to be a "gun" then it already is, legally, a gun. Even if it isn't a gun yet or never was intended to be a gun. It can be easily made into a gun, so it is one.

But a "gun" is also the major, integral, part ("frame") of that machine. But you don't get to decide what is or is not a "frame." The government does. But they usually have a list. Yes, part of a gun, even if it is non-functioning because it is missing parts, is still a gun. That is the same as the government saying that the engine of a car IS a car.

But it does not stop there. A "gun" is ALSO a "muffler" or "silencer." Yes, a "silencer" (which isn't really a silencer, but we'll talk about that another time) is also a "gun." It does not spit out bullets or contain an explosion, but because of the National Firearms Act of 1934, a "muffler for a gun," basically an accessory, was also classified as a "gun." Yes, it is exactly the same as if the government decided that the hub-cap for a car was also a car and needed to be subjected to all the laws regulating the car.

A "destructive device" is a broad category and can cover things like "machine guns" or even bombs or poison gas. Yes, poison gas might be a gun under Federal law.

What isn't a "gun?" Well, certain definitions of "antique gun" are not guns, at least not for purposes of this law. The short-hand of this is "black powder muzzle loader" firearms and reproductions of them. There is also a lot more that goes into the definition of "antique" firearm, of course

Notice that this leaves out some unusual things which we often call "gun." Such as "air gun" and "BB gun." Under Federal law, pneumatic guns and CO2 guns are not "guns."

But not so fast, just because the Federal law does not call it a gun does not mean that that your State law is as permissive. So, while you may not have to complete a Federal "background check" for a black powder "cap 'n ball" revolver or a Pellet Rifle, your State might have a different definition so be sure to check your local laws.