What’s in a name? The Evolution of the Term “Gun”

  • Date:
  • July 24, 2019

The 1828 edition of the American Dictionary of the English Language (which Justice Scalia cited in District of Columbia v. Heller when he defined “arms,” “keep,” “carry,” and “militia”) defined “gun” as “[a]n instrument consisting of a barrel or tube of iron or other metal fixed in a stock, from which balls, shot, or other deadly weapons are discharged by the explosion of gunpowder. The larger species of guns are called cannon; and the small species are called muskets, carbines, fowling pieces, &c. But one species of fire-arms, the pistol, is never called a gun.”

The Repository of Historical Gun Laws suggests that the italicized portion of this definition was widely accepted throughout the 19th century and into the early 20th century – laws from Connecticut (1835), San Francisco (1849), Chicago (1873), New Haven (CT) (1881), Massachusetts (1882), Rhode Island (1883),  Michigan (1883), New Jersey (1885), St. Louis (1887), Utah (1905), North Carolina (1913), and South Carolina (1923) all differentiate between guns and pistols.

Why does this matter? Statutes that only prohibited guns during this time period may have implicitly included an exception for pistols. Several such laws appear on the Repository, and while they may merely be examples of oversight or poor draftsmanship, there are signs that the omission was intentional. For instance, there is consistency in the use of “gun” in isolation: nearly all of the laws that mention guns but not pistols address hunting. Perhaps in such cases though it was unlawful to carry guns, it was lawful to carry pistols as they were not hunting weapons. Furthermore, several states that enacted laws only addressing guns enacted laws addressing both guns and pistols in the same year. In 1863, Delaware enacted a hunting law stating that “any gun . . . used with the consent or knowledge of the owner thereof, shall be forfeited and may be seized, condemned and sold as hereinafter provided.” That same year, Delaware enacted another law prohibiting specified persons from possessing “a gun, pistol, sword or any other warlike instrument.” Similarly, in 1880, Georgia enacted a hunting law stating that it was “unlawful for any person or persons to hunt with a gun by fire-light.” Also that same year, Georgia enacted another law that addressed “any person who shall intentionally point or aim a gun or pistol.” Similarly, New Jersey enacted a statute in 1901 that used the terms firearms and guns in separate clauses of the same sentence. Perhaps this is an example of colloquialism slipping through; however, this statute, like the others, also used the term “gun” in relation to hunting.

The New Jersey statute brings up another question. Where does the term “firearm” fit into all of this? The Repository suggests that at the very least, a pistol, though not always considered a gun, was regarded as a firearm. A statute from 1885 out of New York, for example, addressed the carrying of “any pistol or other firearms of any kind.” But was a gun a type of firearm? The answer to that question is less clear.

The syntax of several laws indicates that a gun was regarded as a type of firearm. When pistols, guns, and firearms are listed together on the Repository, the most common phrasing is “gun, pistol or other firearm.” You can see this with minimal variation in New Jersey (1885), Fresno (CA) (1896), Utah (1905), North Carolina (1913), and South Carolina (1923). Now, admittedly, that construction is ambiguous. It could be that the term “firearm” applies only to the term “pistol.” If that is true, then the term “gun” presumably refers to a separate category of weaponry. However, another interpretation is that “other firearms” applies to both “gun” and “pistol.” Laws out of Georgia (1847) and Arizona (1907) support this theory, as both read “gun or other firearm” (with slight grammatical differences).

The same dictionary that launched this discussion, however, supports the argument that the terms gun and firearm referred to distinct, though overlapping, types of weapons. The American Dictionary of the English Language from 1828 defines “firearm” as “[a]rms or weapons which expel their charge by the combustion of powder, as pistols, muskets, &c.” Though it expressly includes pistols, the definition also does not describe the same range of weaponry as the definition of “gun.” While the term gun encompasses canons as well as smaller species of guns such as muskets, the definition of “firearm” only includes examples weapons that could be carried. The definition of “firearm” does not say that the examples are comprehensive, however the examples do indicate a difference between the terms. As does the fact that neither entry refers to the other.

Regardless of whether guns were once considered firearms, at least one thing is clear: the definition of “gun” has evolved. Present-day dictionaries, such as the Oxford Dictionary, no longer exclude pistols from the definition of “gun.” Some do, however, limit the definition of “firearm” largely to weapons that are “small and portable, [such] as a pistol, rifle, shotgun, or musket.” Such definitions are consistent with the analysis of the 1828 definition of “firearm” above. Furthermore, if guns once were considered a subgroup within the category of firearms, then at some point it seems the roles reversed: The Oxford American Dictionary and Thesaurus (Second Edition, 2003), for instance, defines a firearm as “a gun, especially a pistol or rifle.”

While present-day dictionaries may offer some clarity, many questions remain. Why did the definition of “gun” initially exclude pistols? Why did it change, and when did it change? If this analysis is correct, how might it impact the way we analyze laws from the 18th and early 19th century?

[Ed. Note: This post about gun laws in the Center’s Repository of Historical Gun Laws is written by Center research assistant Catie Carberry. This post, like the Repository, is exemplary and not exhaustive.]