Commentary by Lee O. Thomas
There is no such thing as an “illegal” gun. A firearm, as any other weapon, may be possessed lawfully or unlawfully, or used criminally, carelessly or recklessly, but it is still an inanimate object guided by human hand.
I take no sides in the often bizarre war of words relating to the control of weapons that can be possessed and used for lawful purposes, and those that cannot. However, when speaking and writing, I always insist on the use of the correct definition of terms with their corresponding laws. Recent media stories, editorials and letters to the editor about “illegal” firearms in the Capital Region (NY) depict the ignorance of many of those concerned.
I do not speak of the writers’ collective views or positions about the incidents concerned, but to the substantive inaccuracies in their written and spoken words. Unless used as a deliberate attempt to inflame or deceive their audience, there is no valid reason for betraying ignorance relating to the subject discussed or written about. When an author or speaker utilizes terminology that is fully defined by law, there is little excuse for any ignorance of its meaning.
As described by state law (NY), a “firearm” is normally a pistol or revolver, a “handgun.” In common terms, a “rifle” is a rifle, and a “shotgun” is a shotgun.
A “machine gun” is a fully automatic weapon, usually with a selector switch allowing control, capable of firing numerous rounds of ammunition with a single pull of the trigger. Since the Vietnam War, the standard-issue shoulder weapon used by our armed forces is essentially a machine gun.
A “semiautomatic” pistol, rifle or shotgun only fires one round with each pull of the trigger. All are only effective in accordance with the capacity and type of magazine that supports the weapon concerned.
In New York law, “assault weapons” are normally semiautomatic rifles, with some of the visual characteristics of common military arms but are not fully automatic. There is a distinction between the description of an assault weapon as defined by law, and in the off-the-shelf look alike, from a dealer’s shop.
In some instances, the difference can be the date of manufacture; manufactured on Monday, it is a rifle, on Tuesday an “assault weapon.” In other cases, the subsequent installation, or deletion, of an otherwise obscure part, or the utilization of a larger capacity magazine, changes an otherwise lawfully possessed rifle into an unlawfully possessed assault weapon.
In most cases, it takes the examination of an expert in both legal interpretation and firearms, to tell the difference between a “rifle” and an “assault weapon.” Even then, because some terminology is undefined, the ultimate determination requires subjective interpretation of the controlling statute.
As it has always been, laws proscribe prohibited conduct and warn of the penalties for those who disobey them.
And as it has always been, such warning has rarely ever prevented an unlawful act by a person who doesn’t care.
It is regrettable that the media, legislators and other state and local officials and the ever-present, self-proclaimed experts so often put forth their collective voices and agendas without knowledge and concern for their effect. Too often, facts are not adequately checked before “exclusive” or “newsworthy” stories printed, “feel good” laws proposed, political agendas developed, and even social programs evolve; all around “the illegal gun.”
Lee O. Thomas of Guilderland retired as officer in charge of the State Police Central Records Section, and commanded the Pistol License Bureau for many years. He is the co-author of Gun Control in New York, a manual of the state’s firearms and weapons laws which is updated annually. The commentary was first published in the Albany Times- Union, Dec. 9. 2011, during an earlier period of public debate about guns.