Whats In a Name?

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An image of various weapons
A photo of various weapons.

Within the New Jersey firearms community there is some debate about terminology, especially when it comes to describing that object with which we are allowed to defend ourselves under our Permit to Carry. Some use the term “weapon” and some use the term “firearm”. Does it matter which term we use? Are there any implications beyond word choice? I think these are some interesting questions.

I’d like to begin by saying that I personally do not care what choices grown men and women make regarding their vocabulary. However, I note with interest that there is a wide variety of terms officially used by the various states that issue permits for concealed carry. For example:

My New Jersey card says “Handgun”; my New Jersey FPID card says “Firearm”; my Utah card says “Firearm”; my New Hampshire card says “pistol/revolver”; my Pennsylvania card application says “Firearm”; my old Virginia card says “Firearm”; my Texas card, were I go to Texas to get one, would say “Firearm”; my Connecticut card, were I to get one, would say “Firearm”. Only my Florida card says “Weapon/Firearm”, and my Arizona card, were I to have one, would say “Weapon”.

I think that covers all the permits I can get as a New Jersey resident. So, if we are being pedantic, no New Jersey resident has been issued a permit to carry a “Weapon”, or a “CCW Permit”.

Why is this important? Is it because firearms are not weapons? No – clearly, as pointed out, firearms can be *used* [1] as weapons (that is, an object used to project force against another human), but then so can knives, tasers, bats, stones, etc. The definition is therefore primarily in the use, not the object, and with use, comes the question of intent, and with intent, whether we like it or not, comes the question of perception, specifically the perception of others.

When someone asks, “Why do you feel the need to carry a weapon?” their perception is that it may have an offensive purpose. We might be able to influence their thinking by responding, “for personal defense”, but by then, perception has already been established. So for that reason, I choose to refer to “my defensive firearm”, if I ever talk about it at all, which I generally do not.

What do I teach my students? I teach, and emphasize, that they should never refer to their home or carry firearm as a weapon, ever. The reason for this is simple and as pointed out, “weapon” has a negative context. If I am ever in court after a defensive firearm use, do I really want my gun to be perceived as a weapon? No, I want the object used by my assailant to be perceived as the (offensive) weapon, and the object used by me as a (defensive) firearm that I was forced into using when I ran out of options. I want to separate the connotations of the two words in the minds of the jurors as far as possible.

When we defend ourselves with a firearm are we using it as a weapon? Obviously, we are, but that’s not the point. Whether we like it or not, the general perception of the word ‘weapon’ lies more on the offensive rather than the defensive side, and I don’t think that blurring the two intents is useful.

For better or worse, we New Jersey PTC holders are now front-line ambassadors for gun ownership in our communities. Many of the people here have fought long and hard for what we now have (and I’m excluding myself, here). There is a lot of anti-gun sentiment in New Jersey, as we know only too well. In my opinion, we serve our purpose of winning people over, or at least allaying their fear of the unknown (people carrying guns), by using terminology that helps them to feel at ease.

[1] The dictionary definitions of “weapon” all refer to the use of an object, not the object per se: eg dictionary.com “any instrument or device for use in attack or defense”; eg Merriam-Webster “something (such as a club, knife, or gun) used to injure, defeat, or destroy”; eg vocabulary.com “A weapon is something used to hurt someone.” (emphasis added).

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