AIRGUNS AND THE LAW
by Robert D. Beeman
Draft of 22 June 2007
This is not really an article, but rather just a developing collection of thoughts about the legal aspects of airguns.
Certainly one of the nicest things about airguns, and one of the primary reasons for their present popularity, is the relative lack of regulations and restrictions concerning them. In most locations, airguns are not subject to nearly the number or severity of rules as are firearms. The big difference lies in THE FACT that airguns definitely are not firearms and are generally not, and certainly should not, be considered as weapons. One can generally take them across state lines, even international lines, and ship them with little or no legal trouble.
Unfortunately, there are a number of laws on the books which do affect adult airguns that probably were never meant to affect them. One must look very carefully what various laws, especially local laws, mean when they say "gun", "rifle", "pistol", and sometimes "firearm". Generally the term "firearm" is the clearest, as the meaning almost always follows the dictionary definition of firearm. That is, a device which propels a projectile by means of expanding gases due to the detonation of powder. However, remember that in the Topsy Turvy world of legal jargon, a word can mean anything that the law defines it means, or that it has been interpreted to mean. For instance, some federal laws define a "firearm" as being a machine gun or a silencer! One of the only exceptions to the regulation of the arrangement of interstate shipping of airguns, involved the sending of air pistols. Certainly the intent of the rule which forbids the sending of air pistols by U. S. parcel post was to restrict the interstate shipment of firearm pistols, but it also applies to air pistols. Under the new concerns with Homeland Security it is rumored that some packages, which x-rays show to contain a pistol shaped object, are simply destroyed. At best, the package is returned to the sender who may face some problems when he tries to pick up the package. However, they may be freely sent by United Parcel and other means of public transportation IF the carrier will accept them. However, violating the policy of a private company generally is not a legal violation. Fed Ex Ground has been one of the best services for those who wish to ship airguns.
There are a great many local
regulations concerning airguns, but these generally were drafted with the intent
of controlling sale and misuse of BB guns and youth-oriented airguns. One of the
most interesting of these local rules is the total ban on selling, or even
displaying, airguns in San Francisco. That law was reportedly put on the books
very early in the century to try to inhibit youngsters who were stimulating the
back ends of milk wagon horses on incredibly steep streets of San Francisco! So,
you may freely buy or own a large-bore sniper rifle, a 10-gauge shotgun, a
semi-auto pistol, or a "Dirty Harry" magnum revolver in San Francisco, but not
an airgun! Many communities have passed laws preventing the sale of airguns to
minors and outlawing the juvenile use of airguns which might lead to vandalism.
Unfortunately, when almost all of these laws were drafted, "adult" airguns,
and even air soft guns, were
virtually unknown to the legislators, and the laws they promote now, unjustly in
most cases, include modern and sophisticated airguns which almost surely would
be found very rarely, if ever, in the hands of inexperienced youth and vandals.
Some communities have passed what are known as "projectile laws" which cover
everything from slingshots to pea shooters to magnum firearms. These, of course,
also sweep in the adult airguns which might be used in a very harmless manner in
someone's basement or range. The key point here is that such laws usually are
enforced as per their original intent. Sometimes an overzealous citizen or
officer does go beyond the boundaries of being reasonable, so one should be
aware of what the letter of the law does indeed say. I am not going to advocate
violating some of these laws which were not meant to apply to adult airguns but
do find out what the local law does say and how they have been applied.
Generally persons can use these guns within their own home in an inoffensive, and certainly very safe manner,
without a problem. The modern doctrine generally is that whatever adults do within the privacy of their own
home, which does not affect the public health or welfare, and does not disturb
others, is their own business!
In 1987, a radio talk show announcer by the name of Dan Horowitz was threatened, while on the air, with a fake gun. Horrified, Mr. Horowitz unleashed a public hysteria program about the supposed dangers of non-firearm guns, especially look-alike toys or soft airguns. As a consequence, a number of communities passed poorly-conceived laws which forbade the display or even ownership of objects which even looked like firearms. Some of these laws include regulations against airguns which resemble firearms; others swept in all airguns! Pressure was brought to mark some, or all, non-firearms with a conspicuous mark, such as a brilliant fluorescent orange tip. (In California, airguns which basically were designed to fire a metallic projectile were exempted from this regulation.)
Some of these laws made perfectly good sense by attacking improper action, such as threatening and brandishing of non-firearms, instead of attacking the item which is innocent in itself. Some of the other laws ranged from ludicrous to counter-productive. The impact on law-abiding adult airgunners is obvious, but even anti-gunners are poorly served by laws which ironically would force shooters to turn from airguns to firearms. And, a police officer whose life can depend on a decision made in a fraction of a second, is poorly served by an idea to identify non-firearms when a criminal has marked his deadly weapon in the same way to give him a moment's advantage! I mention this here to emphasize that it is the duty of every airgunner to exhibit care and diligence as to what his local city council, or other law-making body, may be doing and how supposedly innocent laws may contain clauses that should be opposed by someone with a good perspective on shooting sports. Sometimes a single, well reasoned voice in a public hearing can be more effective than the lobbying of ten vested interest factory representatives.
Airguns simply are not firearms. Of course, a legal body, or a legal document, can define even a fishing pole as a firearm, but legally defining or ruling that something is what it really is not, such as the federal law that defines silencers as firearms, is legal foolishness or arrogance. An airgun does not operate by "fire" and most modern ones should not be referred to as arms, a point covered in the Word Games section. Note that the BATF has sometimes included airguns of very large bore size (over 20 mm?) as “Destructive Devices”. This includes cannons and mortars; a category of weapons which is subject to extremely severe regulation.
In some jurisdictions, airguns might run into legal trouble as “devices capable of causing severe bodily harm”. In such areas, it would be just as serious, from a legal standpoint, to use an airgun, which could put out a human’s eye, in backyard plinking or target shooting out of a window, as it would be to use a high power rifle! In other areas, the key consideration is whether or not a particular airgun is a “deadly weapon”. I have been called to court many times to testify if a certain airgun, used in a crime or a threat, generally would be considered a deadly weapon. Obviously, such a consideration is much different than considering whether of not the airgun in question is capable of causing serious bodily damage, such as an eye injury. Some air pistols, but certainly not soft-air guns, could be considered as being capable of causing severe bodily harm, but by no stretch of the imagination should they be considered as being deadly weapons.
The laws and rules pertaining to firearms, and generally the intent behind them, are generally quite different than those for airguns. The laws on ownership, transportation, shipping, concealment, and use of firearms should not apply to airguns, if the terms of the involved laws properly and clearly define firearms. Many of the laws applying to machine guns and cane guns do not apply to airguns because those laws specify that they apply to firearms and airguns are not firearms. However, one must be very careful to look at what the laws really do cover. If they use the term "guns" instead of firearms, or if the term firearm is poorly or perversely defined, there may be problems where none should have existed. Australia recently enacted some very severe laws which require the public to surrender their guns to the government for destruction. Because the law says "guns", little, weak air pistols are being swept up just like powerful assault rifles!
Although it is slanted towards considerations of airgun silencers and airgun sound moderators, this website’s section on Airgun Silencers touches on many of the general points of airguns and the law.