Is There Any Such Thing as An Illegal Gun?

I’ve had a surprising number of people in the comments try to suggest that there’s no such thing as an illegal gun, any more than there’s an illegal wrench, illegal car, or illegal bat. I am going to agree that it’s not precise English, and I’m certainly not going to defend MAIG’s use and abuse of the term, but I think one has to take care to compare like contexts in order to determine whether the term is malapropos.

It doesn’t make much sense to apply the term to a car, because a car isn’t illegal in very many contexts, except to drive on the public road without registration, but we generally refer to that as an unregistered vehicle. I suspect if guns were registered, you’d also hear that term applied to guns, and you do in jurisdictions that’s the case. It also doesn’t make much sense to apply the term to bats or wrenches for the same reason, though you can imagine hearing the term “illegal bat” in sporting context, even though bats are generally legal in most contexts.

But there are plenty of uses in English for the adjective “illegal” to describe objects that are generally legal, but are unlawful in certain contexts. You can imagine for instance a newspaper report saying “A man was caught by police selling illegal drugs to Children. In his possession were several bottles of Oxycontin.” or perhaps “The DUI arrest was made after police found an illegal open container filled with beer under the driver’s seat.” or if you really want an odd but similar context, “The man imported the lobsters in an illegal bag.”

So I think it’s reasonable to say there is such a thing as an illegal gun, even though the same gun would be legal in different hands or a different context, just as some drugs are legal or illegal depending on context, open containers of beer are legal or illegal depending on the context, and bags are generally always legal until you try to import lobsters in the wrong one. It might not be the most precise English that could be used, and Bloomberg is certainly abusing the term, but I don’t agree that “illegal gun” is malapropos.

14 Responses to “Is There Any Such Thing as An Illegal Gun?”

  1. Jay G. says:

    Off the top of my head, I’d posit that a gun with defaced serial numbers, a gun not importable that’s in the country anyways (i.e. a .380 ACP Glock), or anything that runs afoul of the 922R (AK with too many foreign parts frex) would qualify as illegal.

    I started to mention NFA, but that’s a matter of the owner not having the proper paperwork – it’s perfectly legal to cut a shotgun down to a pistol grip and a 6″ barrel, provided you’re in a state that allows it and you get the stamp and approval, etc.

    There are precious few actual, really, honestly-and-truly illegal guns. What the media means in 99.9999% of the cases is “someone had a gun who shouldn’t have”…

  2. Link P says:

    Contextually, a malfunctioning AR-15 is an unregistered machine gun in the eyes of the ATF & the courts, ergo an “illegal gun”.

    I don’t care much for endorsing the language of the enemy, and I know you don’t either based on your declaration to “not … defend MAIG’s use and abuse of the term”. I certainly understand there are guns that are illegal in a specific circumstance, such as any firearm used in the commission of a felony, I just don’t find it an appropriate way to refer to any firearm.

    An example if I may:

    A loaded pistol in a shoulder holster under a jacket (or concealed in other manner) in an unincorporated area in Idaho is perfectly legal for anyone to carry with your standard exceptions for certain types of exclusions (felony convict, domestic battery convict, subject of protection order or pending felony charges, minor under 21), no permit required.

    That very same legal pistol becomes an “illegal gun” once you come out of the mountains and cross into an incorporated town unless you switch it to your exposed holster (on your belt perhaps, but visible is the only requirement).

    You can place that pistol in plain sight in your vehicle and it can remain loaded as a “legal gun”, but tuck it into the glove box while in (an incorporated) town without unloading it and that same pistol is an “illegal gun” again.

    Of course a CWP alleviates some of the nonsensical status changes to the weapon, and I can’t really complain about the state of concealed carry in Idaho, but in my example consider that it is the same citizen and the same pistol.

    Is it ever really an “illegal gun” or just a violation of the Idaho code?

  3. Matthew Carberry says:

    Careful, emphasizing the importance of context is adding nuance to the argument.

    Nuance is anathema to True Belief(tm).

    Might as well be wearing a MAIG t-shirt.


  4. Zak Johnson says:

    Link P is right about the “malfunctioning” AR-15 being considered a “machine gun” by misguided authorities. David Olofson of WI found this out the hard way by lending a weapon to a friend who used it at a range where it allegedly fired three times with a single trigger pull. Last I heard Olofson was in jail for illegal transfer, even though BATFE confirmed it had not been tampered with & their initial tests were unable to repeat the firing. Latter tests they used ammunition more susceptible to that kind of thing, and got their conviction. On the face of it, this looks like the textbook kind of case gun owners worry about most, & a reason why ATF has a poor reputation in many circles.

    Always illegal guns would have to include sawed-off shotguns, of course, regardless of who owned them, as well as other guns banned nationally. As for local bans, many of them run afoul of the Constitution, or so we can hope this coming March, but good luck beating the rap without deep pockets and a good attorney who’s got lots of free time.

  5. Sebastian says:

    Actually, I don’t mean to suggest that we should embrace the term “illegal gun” because it confuses people about his true agenda, and gets people continuing to think of guns as something wrong or illicit.

    But nor do I think we should battle the use of the term when it’s presented in a proper context by others.

  6. Sebastian says:

    David Olofson is in jail because he had a gun that could burst fire, knew about that function, and transferred it to someone else. He also had an M16 trigger group and selector in the AR that allowed a hammer follow. I don’t buy the notion that he had a malfunctioning AR. I’ve read the entire trial transcript, and I think he was guilty of what he was charged with.

    I don’t agree with that law, but that doesn’t mean everyone who gets charged under it has been railroaded.

  7. DirtCrashr says:

    According to many Liberals there’s no such ting as an illegal-alien either.

  8. mikeb302000 says:

    There is the “illegal gun” which has been modified in some way contrary to the law or one which is banned outright, and then there’s the way the MAIG uses the expression to refer to “guns in the hands of criminals.”

    Usually when people use this expression that’s what they mean. Only the most tediously contentious folks seize upon it and turn it into a debate in and of itself. I’m talking about some of the commenters on my blog, not about this post.

  9. Weer'd Beard says:

    MikeB, why don’t you tell us.

    I mean most of us are law abiding citizens, not admitted criminals. So you should know this subject far better than we do. I defer to your authority on this matter!

  10. Bob S. says:

    Once again MikeB302000 shows up to make personal attacks – something he says he doesn’t do.

    We talk about “illegal guns” on your blog because of how you use the term.

    Just like Sebastian is talking about how MAIG is using the term, we tried to explain your usage was incorrect.

    When you talk about stopping the flow of “illegal guns” for example; you mean the transfer of firearms to people who are prohibited from owning them. That is an improper usage and gives the impression the firearm is the problem, not the criminals doing illegal acts.

  11. Bob S. says:

    By the way MikeB302000?

    Still waiting on the evidence of how often law enforcement is responding to children with toy guns compared to the number of defensive gun uses.

    If it is happening so often, as you claim, then it should be easy to find information, right?

  12. Philbert says:

    If there is no such thing as an illegal gun, the same logic suggests there is no such thing as an illegal immigrant.

  13. persiflage says:

    I suspect almost every time we see “illegal gun” in the media, what they really mean is ILLEGAL POSSESSION by a prohibited person. It’s just laziness on their part not to enter the additional keystrokes and explanation.
    I think I would agree that under the law a defaced firearm (SN removed or made illegible) is illegal for possession by anyone, and thus an “illegal firearm.”

  14. Harrson says:

    Don’t most towns have something requiring ethical conduct from its elected officials? If so, would it be out of line to start a group decrying the evils of illegal mayors?