Firearms, “weapons” and challenging the abuse of language

One real problem facing British shooters is how the police insist on wrongly calling firearms and shotguns held by law-abiding members of the licensed firearms community* “weapons”. It is essential that we challenge the misuse of this word by police and government employees at every opportunity. The Oxford Dictionary defines a weapon as follows:

A thing designed or used for inflicting bodily harm or physical damage: nuclear weapons

While this definition arguably creates a grey area when it comes to military surplus firearms, ultimately the question that matters is one of intent; we – that is, the licensed firearms community – do not use our firearms for inflicting bodily harm on human beings. More to the point, we cannot (legally) obtain them for inflicting bodily harm – or, for that matter, for defence. Therefore by no definition can a legally held firearm be defined as a weapon, unless it is misused to harm another human being.

This simple matter of English usage did not trouble the police constables and civil servants who wrote the 1972 McKay Report, which called upon the government to effectively ban the private ownership of firearms. They had this to say about calling all legally-owned firearms and shotguns weapons:

First and foremost, it seems to us that a firearm must be a “weapon” within the ordinary definition (an instrument of any kind used in warfare or in combat to attack and overcome an enemy; “an instrument of offence”). If the only fair way of describing an instrument is as “an imitation weapon” then it necessarily seems to follow that the instrument is not a “weapon”. If it were a weapon, one would not describe it either as an imitation or as something which might be used as such. Words were used in Read v. Donovan (1974) 1 All E.R. 37; (1947), K.B. 236, which might appear to suggest that any signalling apparatus like a rocket signal device was necessarily a firearm. This seems clearly not to be so. If the statute had meant a lethal barrelled instrument or a lethal barrelled apparatus, it would have said so. In fact, the statute says “a lethal barrelled weapon”. (Read v. Donovan) proceeded upon the footing that the double barrelled Very pistol in the case was a weapon and in the judgement it is repeatedly described as such. That is understandable, in view of the evidence in that case that these pistols had commonly been fired at the enemy, with effect, in actual warfare.

This is self-evidently lacking in a number of areas – UKSN suspects whatever definition the police were using in 1972 was carefully selected from a very obscure dictionary and quoted only in part – but that is a matter for another blog post.

Now, the words at the top of our firearm and shotgun certificates are “firearm” and “shotgun”, not “weapon”. If Parliament wanted them identified as weapons, it would have said so in the many acts about firearms that it has passed. For all the many other criticisms that can justifiably be laid at Parliament’s door, an inability to follow the English language is not yet one of them.

Where does the police misuse of the term “weapon” originate from? Police firearms units train with weapons in order to kill and incapacitate, whilst firearms used by criminals are invariably employed as weapons. Therefore, this being the only experience or mention of firearms that the vast majority of police constables come across, the impression arises that all firearms must be weapons. So you and I get lumped in with hardened criminals and people whose job it is to legally apply extreme violence to those criminals using apparatus that is very similar to our own.

In a similar way, the armed forces refer to all their small arms as weapons, for the very good reason that they are definitely used as such. Regrettably, this approach crosses over into referring to rifles issued to the cadet forces (youth clubs aimed at U18s) as weapons, which programs this misuse of the English language into the youngest and most impressionable of minds.

The next time your FEO refers to your firearms or shotguns as weapons, politely correct him. Getting people to refer to our sporting equipment correctly is a small step towards breaking down fears and prejudices.

* “Licensed firearms community” is a term coined by Chief Constable Andy Marsh of Hampshire Constabulary, who is also the chair of the police’s Firearms and Explosives Licensing Working Group (FELWG). It is an excellent term and one we should use more often.

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One thought on “Firearms, “weapons” and challenging the abuse of language

  1. Steve

    “Therefore by no definition can a legally held firearm be defined as a weapon, unless it is misused to harm another human being.”

    “Physical damage” in the OED definition includes shooting animals, and the vast majority of legally-owned firearms in the UK are owned for pest control and field sports. They are weapons. You might be able to argue a .22 rifle designed for ISSF is not a weapon, but it’s derived from a weapon, the same as a fencing sword. No later case law I’m familiar with contradicts anything said in 1972 that a firearm is a weapon.

    “If Parliament wanted them identified as weapons, it would have said so in the many acts about firearms that it has passed.”

    Such as in the Firearms Act 1968:

    57 Interpretation.

    (1) In this Act, the expression “firearm” means a lethal barrelled weapon of any description from which any shot, bullet or other missile can be discharged and includes—

    (a) any prohibited weapon, whether it is such a lethal weapon as aforesaid or not; and

    (b) any component part of such a lethal or prohibited weapon; and

    (c) any accessory to any such weapon designed or adapted to diminish the noise or flash caused by firing the weapon;

    and so much of section 1 of this Act as excludes any description of firearm from the category of firearms to which that section applies shall be construed as also excluding component parts of, and accessories to, firearms of that description.

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