American gun control laws: A shoestring is a gun, but a revolver is not?

By Jeff Knox

When a New York City police officer caught a .32 caliber slug in his ribs last week, Mayor Mike Bloomberg was quick to question how the career criminal and convicted felon was able to obtain the gun. I'm afraid that the question is going to lead to attempts at broader restrictions on more items in New York and elsewhere because it's possible that the gun involved in the shooting might not be a firearm.

That might not make much sense, but firearms laws generally don't.

Depending on when the gun was made and/or whether the cartridges is considered "obsolete," a .32 caliber revolver might not be legally considered a firearm and might not be illegal for a felon to purchase or possess. On the other end of the spectrum, a plastic bottle cap can be a firearm, as can a shoestring.

Under federal law, a firearm is either a device which expels a projectile by means of a controlled explosion (with certain exceptions,) or it is a full-auto, a silencer, or certain parts thereof. Antique guns, muzzle loaders, and guns chambered for "obsolete" cartridges are not considered "firearms" by the feds or most states. Such guns can be legally purchased and possessed by convicted felons in most places. Whether the "really old" gun involved in the recent wounding of the NY officer turns out to be a firearm under federal and NY law or not, Bloomberg is probably going to go ballistic when his lawyers start explaining the possibility of it not being one.

The lid of that can of worms has already been partially removed in the case of a New York collector who purchased a replica flint-lock. He is now being pushed to register the gun with police even though it is clearly exempt from all NY registration requirements. With both of these cases happening close together, expect to see calls for closing the "old gun loophole" any day now.

It should be noted that even though antique and obsolete guns are not legally firearms in most jurisdictions, they can still be considered weapons and therefore fall under prohibitions against the carry of concealed weapons – by convicted felons or anyone else.

The National Firearms Act (NFA) defines a "firearm" as a full-auto or any part which makes a gun into a full-auto. This includes obvious things such as a drop-in "auto sear" for an AR-15 or the selective fire mechanism of an M14, but it also includes not so obvious things such as a shoestring. Wrapped around a trigger, trigger guard, and bolt handle of a semi-auto in just the right way, a string, when pulled, will trip the trigger, release it as the bolt moves rearward and then reengage it as the bolt returns to battery. To legally use a shoestring for such a purpose you must first file manufacturing paperwork, go through a background investigation, and pay a $200 tax and the string must be permanently marked with a serial number and manufacturer name and location.

Under NFA a silencer is also a "firearm" and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) has ruled that, since attaching a 2-liter, plastic soda bottle to a firearm would reduce the sound of the gun by 1db or more, drilling a hole in a plastic bottle cap so that it can be attached to the muzzle of a firearm, makes the bottle cap a silencer and therefore a firearm.

So a plastic bottle cap with a hole in it is a firearm as is a short piece of string, while a .32 revolver or even a "Broomhandle" Mauser semi-auto pistol might not be. Of course the only way the hoplophobes could imagine to fix this stupidity will be to add more restrictions. In the masterpiece Atlas Shrugged, one of Ayn Rand’s characters provides an excellent explanation for this:

"There's no way to rule innocent men. The only power any government has is the power to crack down on criminals. Well, when there aren't enough criminals one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws."

That's what's been happening with gun laws for decades. It's well past time for these bizarre affronts to logic, reason, and human rights to be wiped from the books, but instead we are probably going to see serious attempts at complicating them even more.

Permission to reprint or post this article in its entirety is hereby granted provided this credit is included. Text is available at www.FirearmsCoalition.org.

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