(It’s actually not a trick question.) The simple answer is: when you’re reading the laws, regulations, rulings, and guidance documents related to guns. The National Firearms Act of 1968 defines “firearms,” “machineguns,” “rifles,” “shotguns,” “antique firearms,” and the catch-all of “other.” In the regulations that accompany the NFA, these words are redefined and several more words like “pistol” are added. Here is a handy alphabetically-organized reference list of definitions:
“Antique firearm” – 26 United States Code (USC) section 8545(g)
“Any other weapon” – 26 USC section 8545(e), 27 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) 479.11
“Destructive device” – 26 USC section 8545(f), 27 CFR 479.11
“Firearms” – see 26 USC section 5845(a), 27 CFR 479.11
“Machineguns” – 26 USC section 5845(b), 27 CFR 479.11
“Pistol” – 27 CFR 479.11
“Revolver” – 27 CFR 479.11
“Rifles” – 26 USC section 5845(c), 27 CFR 479.11
“Shotguns” – 26 USC section 5845(d) and (f), 27 CFR 479.11
These definitions include a technical component, defining overall length, barrel length, projectile, action, and relationship of projectile to trigger pull. In the case of the antique firearm, the definition includes ignition system and date of manufacture. These technical portions of the definitions are objective in nature, for example, a barrel length either is or is not more than 12-inches. The regulations even offer clarification on how to perform measurements.
Then, there are two parts of definitions that are subject to interpretation. The first word subject to interpretation is “intend.” For example, consider the word “intended” in the GCA definition of a “pistol.” “A weapon originally designed, made, and intended to fire a projectile (bullet) from one or more barrels when held in one hand…” When a statute or regulation uses the word “intend,” it is trying to minimize the technical terms in favor of a reasonable interpretation of the product. Of course, this begs the question “reasonable to whom?”
The second word used in these definitions – which is more of a phrase – that can be subject to interpretation is “may be readily restored.” It’s a phrase that we routinely see in definitions of various firearms, and in gun control legislation it is generally the demarcation between a legal and an illegal firearm or feature. Part of the question surrounding this phrase is what level of expertise would be required to make the conversion, would specialty tools be required, how much would it cost, and how long would it take.
In the second part of this blog, we’ll consider how to compare definitions to identify and resolve differences.