Definition of "Weapon of Mass Destruction"

At least, according to U.S. law:

18 U.S.C. 2332a

  • (2) the term "weapon of mass destruction" means—
    • (A) any destructive device as defined in section 921 of this title;
    • (B) any weapon that is designed or intended to cause death or serious bodily injury through the release, dissemination, or impact of toxic or poisonous chemicals, or their precursors;
    • (C) any weapon involving a biological agent, toxin, or vector (as those terms are defined in section 178 of this title); or
    • (D) any weapon that is designed to release radiation or radioactivity at a level dangerous to human life;

18 U.S.C. 921

  • (4) The term "destructive device" means—
    • (A) any explosive, incendiary, or poison gas—
      • (i) bomb,
      • (ii) grenade,
      • (iii) rocket having a propellant charge of more than four ounces,
      • (iv) missile having an explosive or incendiary charge of more than one-quarter ounce,
      • (v) mine, or
      • (vi) device similar to any of the devices described in the preceding clauses;
    • (B) any type of weapon (other than a shotgun or a shotgun shell which the Attorney General finds is generally recognized as particularly suitable for sporting purposes) by whatever name known which will, or which may be readily converted to, expel a projectile by the action of an explosive or other propellant, and which has any barrel with a bore of more than one-half inch in diameter; and
    • (C) any combination of parts either designed or intended for use in converting any device into any destructive device described in subparagraph (A) or (B) and from which a destructive device may be readily assembled.

The term "destructive device" shall not include any device which is neither designed nor redesigned for use as a weapon; any device, although originally designed for use as a weapon, which is redesigned for use as a signaling, pyrotechnic, line throwing, safety, or similar device; surplus ordnance sold, loaned, or given by the Secretary of the Army pursuant to the provisions of section 4684 (2), 4685, or 4686 of title 10; or any other device which the Attorney General finds is not likely to be used as a weapon, is an antique, or is a rifle which the owner intends to use solely for sporting, recreational or cultural purposes.

This is a very broad definition, and one that involves the intention of the weapon's creator as well as the details of the weapon itself.

In an e-mail, John Mueller commented:

As I understand it, not only is a grenade a weapon of mass destruction, but so is a maliciously-designed child's rocket even if it doesn't have a warhead. On the other hand, although a missile-propelled firecracker would be considered a weapons of mass destruction if its designers had wanted to think of it as a weapon, it would not be so considered if it had previously been designed for use as a weapon and then redesigned for pyrotechnic use or if it was surplus and had been sold, loaned, or given to you (under certain circumstances) by the Secretary of the Army.

It's also means that we are coming up on the 25th anniversary of the Reagan administration's long-misnamed WMD-for-Hostages deal with Iran.

Bad news for you, though. You'll have to amend that line you like using in your presentations about how all WMD in all of history have killed fewer people than OIF (or whatever), since all artillery, and virtually every muzzle-loading military long arm for that matter, legally qualifies as an WMD. It does make the bombardment of Ft. Sumter all the more sinister. To say nothing of the revelation that The Star Spangled Banner is in fact an account of a WMD attack on American shores.

Amusing, to be sure, but there's something important going on. The U.S. government has passed specific laws about "weapons of mass destruction," because they're particularly scary and damaging. But by generalizing the definition of WMDs, those who write the laws greatly broaden their applicability. And I have to wonder how many of those who vote in favor of the laws realize how general they really are, or -- if they do know -- vote for them anyway because they can't be seen to be "soft" on WMDs.

It reminds me of those provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act -- and other laws -- that created police powers to be used for "terrorism and other crimes."

EDITED TO ADD (4/14): Prosecutions based on this unreasonable definition.

Posted on April 6, 2009 at 7:10 AM • 78 Comments

Comments

Clive RobinsonApril 6, 2009 7:50 AM

A thought occurs,

Contary to what most people think chemical and biological weapons are actually not very effective in a theater of war when the oposing sides are of similar technical advancment.

The main use for them is against civilian populations and fighting forces that are effectivly "low tech" when it comes to IPE.

In practice the weapons that are most effective in a theater of war irespective of the capabilities of the oponents are "energy release weapons" which includes 99.9...% of conventional weaponry.

The US is the only country in the world to use nukes against an opposing force...

I suspect that most other countries definition of WMD is not so broad as that of the US (though to be honest I've not heard any other countries definitions).

Perhaps the intention of the law is partialy to try and take the "stigma away" by saying every country has WMD. Or for other political purposes.

I'm curious as to why Bruce posted this today as the news has been carrying Barak's comments about N.Korea etc

RoyApril 6, 2009 7:59 AM

We'll have to try applying this to our local police, since their riot guns were never intended for sporting purposes.

Now that the US military is armed to the teeth with WMD, are we supposed to disarm them?

KeithApril 6, 2009 8:07 AM

Matching 18 U.S.C. 2332a (2) (A) with 18 U.S.C. 921 (4) (A) means that a grenade is a WMD. So, arguably, is a pistol (as it's not a shotgun).

Bush was right! There *were* WMD in Iraq!

Jurgen VoorneveldApril 6, 2009 8:24 AM

As I read this most snake venom satisfies either definition 18 U.S.C. 2332a-2 B or C. So does that mean Weapons of Mass Destruction are slithering around in almost all zoo's around the world?

Someone call homeland security!

Unix RoninApril 6, 2009 8:51 AM

I personally suspect that the members of Congress who vote for these laws do so in the full knowledge and awareness that they are broadening the scope of government and law enforcement power, and cast their votes with the clear and direct intent of doing precisely that, secure in the knowledge that the obfuscated and frequently vague wording gives them plausible deniability of their intent.

HenkApril 6, 2009 9:09 AM

So basically if you have a cold and sneeze on someone intentionally you are using a WMD according to subsection C.

Anything including WiFi which some studies have found a health concern is a WMD according to subsection D.

Sigh...

AndrewApril 6, 2009 9:11 AM

Mission creep. I grew up in an age when WMD meant mass destruction, as in "Who needed that city anyway?"

Then truck bombs became WMD. Then satchel charges, RPGs and even hand grenades. But hey, not a Barrett .50 caliber rifle, unless you're in the great state of California. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barrett_M82

Look on the bright side: London (and much of the rest of England) survived constant WMD attack during World War II for years on end.

One also now needs WMD to knock out an bank courier truck. I suppose this is of some meager comfort to an armored car crew.

Then again, most of the criminal organizations in the world now have WMD! Oh no!

vault dwellerApril 6, 2009 9:22 AM

The government does this all the time. By redefining words like WMD or 'Felon' (Anyone convicted of a felony or misdemeanor punishable by more than 2 years, regardless of the sentence actually received), they can pass a law noone would oppose wich can be repurposed for any use.

pjmApril 6, 2009 9:27 AM

I grew up near a shipyard which built (builds) guided-missile destroyers for the U.S. Navy. When I was in high school, we had a visit from Phillip Berrigan (a name I didn't know at the time but have learned more about since) for a protest. Berrigan was arrested for trespass but ultimately released without charges because the government was not interested in allowing him to make his argument in court. As I understand, that argument was as follows:

* The Constitution defines ratified international treaties as having the force of law.
* The U.S. is signatory to international treaties which forbid holding weapons of mass destruction.
* The missiles launched from these ships constituted weapons of mass destruction.
* Therefore, the government was building these ships illegally.

If we accept this line of reasoning as valid (and I am underqualified to weigh the legal argument), doesn't a widening of the definition of "Weapon of Mass Destruction" cut both ways? It seems like we're headed for the same sort of double standard that has led the U.S. to oppose international criminal courts.

Unix RoninApril 6, 2009 9:30 AM

@pjm: They're our government. We're supposed to unquestioningly obey what they say, not think about what they actually do and whether it's consistent with what they say.

billswiftApril 6, 2009 9:49 AM

That destructive devices bit is for domestic consumption and has been law, I think, since the various 1968 Gun Control and Crime Control acts. Its purpose is depriving "citizens" of their "Constitutional rights". Before that you could have a WWII surplus 20mm antitank rifle (you could even order them from ads in Popular Mechanics) suddenly they were illegal without a permit from Treasury Dept (ATF) for which you had to pay a hefty fee and have the FBI investigate you.

paulApril 6, 2009 9:51 AM

@rhr:

Those big gizmos they use for pumpkin-lofting contests? Truly WMD.

There seems to be an out if something wasn't designed as a weapon, but in practice that would just seem to be an invitation to selective prosecution. The only way you can be sure whether something was designed as a weapon is to subject the designed to enhanced interrogation...

AnonymousApril 6, 2009 9:54 AM

@rhr:
About potato cannons, yes, they would meet the definition, except for this part: "or any other device which the Attorney General finds is not likely to be used as a weapon".

This finding has actually occurred, and can be found on the ATF's website. But if you use it for "offensive" (in the military sense) purposes, that finding is rescinded and you can be charged with possession and use of a destructive device.

Fazal MajidApril 6, 2009 9:54 AM

The main problem I have with the whole WMD meme is that it is mostly used to dilute the truly unique horror of nuclear weapons. AFAIK, it started during the first Gulf war. The terminology in military circles was always NBC (nuclear, biological, chemical).

As the first commenter noted, chemical and biological weapons are not very effective as a weapon. They are very effective at paralysing an enemy offensive because fighting in NBC gear is very tiresome, but little beyond that. In any case they do not pose the kind of existential threat to humanity of nuclear weapons.

The expression WMD dilutes the horror most people feel about nuclear weapons and is used to pave the way for tactical nuclear weapons like bunker-busting nukes.

GreyfaceApril 6, 2009 9:59 AM

"surplus ordnance sold, loaned, or given by the Secretary of the Army pursuant to the provisions of section 4684 (2), 4685, or 4686 of title 10;"

I like this part. "If we sell it, it's not a WMD. If anybody that ISN'T US does, it is."

James SutherlandApril 6, 2009 10:01 AM

Technically, running a hose from your car exhaust in through the window would appear to meet (B) - it releases toxic chemicals into the car in order to cause death or serious injury. For that matter, a lead cosh for hitting people (or indeed fish) over the head also appears to meet this "WMD" criterion, since it involves the impact of a toxic chemical, namely lead. Certainly crazy and over-broad definitions.

Nothing new here, of course, as seen in the "assault weapons" ban in the 90s which redefined the term to involve ridiculous criteria like bayonet mounts (seriously, are bayonettings a problem?!) in an effort to create a spurious link in people's minds between the affected weapons and actual assault rifles, which were already illegal under unrelated legislation.

HJohnApril 6, 2009 10:02 AM

@Fazal Majid: "As the first commenter noted, chemical and biological weapons are not very effective as a weapon."
_________

With all due respect, and also with agreement that chemical/biological weapons are not the threat the nuclear weapons are, I would have to disagree they are not effective. 5,000 people, mostly women and children, killed on March 16, 1988 in Halabjah with a mix of poison gas and nerve agents would probably beg to differ to.

AnonymousApril 6, 2009 10:10 AM

HJohn, please read the preceding comments. The statement was that they are not effective in the theater of war against opponents of similar technical advancement. Nobody said gas was ineffective against civilians (quite the opposite, in fact).

HJohnApril 6, 2009 10:17 AM

@Anonymous at April 6, 2009 10:10 AM: "HJohn, please read the preceding comments. The statement was that they are not effective in the theater of war against opponents of similar technical advancement. Nobody said gas was ineffective against civilians (quite the opposite, in fact). "
_____

Point noted. I still respectfully disagree, but I do appreciate the other points of view.

webbnhApril 6, 2009 10:27 AM

My take on this is that there is some confusion (or, at least, disagreement) over what the word "mass" implies.

From where I sit, we were doing OK with 18 U.S.C. 2332a except for the link to 18 U.S.C. 921. Frankly, why does the delivery system matter so much? (I.e., it's the projectile which ultimately does the damage, not the diameter of the barrel.)

In my mind, an artillery piece, a grenade, most mines (e.g., anti-personnel type) are -not- weapons of *mass* destruction -- a single round/blast just doesn't do _that_ much damage (e.g., they aren't going to kill as many as a thousand people, as a well-placed nuke, chemical, biological, or conventional bomb easily could).

If we agreed on what "mass" referred to, perhaps we wouldn't have been compelled to set the threshold so low.

averrosApril 6, 2009 10:33 AM

The whole purpose for writing intentionally vague laws (does anyone believe for a second that the verbal diarrhea found in USC was unintentional?) is to allow the government to persecute people who are somehow embarrasing to the government.

It was like that in the USSR. It is like that now in the US(S)A.

Clive RobinsonApril 6, 2009 10:54 AM

@ webbnh,

"Frankly, why does the delivery system matter so much?"

To enable a prosecution prior to the "act" amongst other things.

If you went out and bought a "crop duster" plane and a bunch of various chemicals quite legaly. You would think you had done nothing wrong.

However even just getting hold of the plane without "good reason" is therefor enough to have you put away by prosection rhetoric...

It's why I say the legal balance has changed for the ordinary citizen you nolonger have the presumption of inocence.

You now have to prove you are inocent against the might of the state and all it's resources...

Hardly equitable is it?

LarryApril 6, 2009 11:18 AM

(B) any type of weapon (other than a shotgun or a shotgun shell which the Attorney General finds is generally recognized as particularly suitable for sporting purposes) by whatever name known which will, or which may be readily converted to, expel a projectile by the action of an explosive or other propellant, and which has any barrel with a bore of more than one-half inch in diameter; and

So spud guns are Weapons of Mass Destruction!

AnonymousApril 6, 2009 11:33 AM

More on the spud gun thing:

The language from 18 U.S.C. 921 about destructive devices is from the National Firearms act of 1934. (No I didn't typo that year, it's really that old.) DDs are regulated the same as short barreled rifles and shotguns, sound suppressors (silencers), and very similar to machine guns. (There's a minor difference with MGs because of the Firearm Owners Protection Act of 1986, which prevented adding any new machine guns to the registry. Basically if it wasn't legally owned before 1986, it can never be legally owned.) Spud guns were definitely under the definitions because of bore diameter, and their manufacture or sale required filling out paperwork with the ATF, a background check, and a $200 stamp tax. As I said earlier, the ATF has already determined that if they are used recreationally, they are legal.

I don't know if I can post links, but here's a good source: http://www.spudfiles.com/spud_wiki/index.php?...
If that link doesn't post, go to google and search for: potato gun atf ruling

hektorApril 6, 2009 11:36 AM

Huu.
There aren't that many WMD, a list would probably suffice using some variables like $viri, etc. So this broad definition could stem from two different lines of thinking.
1.) they actually intend to define it that way. comes in handy when you just need *some* law to get someone arrested and send him to jail. Kind of a joker-law.
2.) IMHO more likely: foolish lawyers working for the administration/the congress/whatever. In Germany we have had to deal with a whole bunch of laws written in haste/by clueless fools. Even the German supreme court was ticked off a fair bit, critizising the abundance of such laws during the last couple of years.

Maybe a thing to watch in the US, too?
H.


Impossibly StupidApril 6, 2009 11:43 AM

Everyone who is pointing to potato guns needs to get their facts straight. Those are simply Weapons of Mashed Destruction! Sorry, sorry...

I have to agree along the lines of webbnh. The given WMD definition is about pre-crime, not actual resulting or expected effects, and so the charge can be retrofitted to just about anything. Same as how the anti-terrorist laws started to get applied for common crimes just because they could.

JD BertronApril 6, 2009 11:47 AM

"I have to wonder how many of those who vote in favor of the laws realize how general they really are.."
Of course they don't. Lawmakers usually graduate from the ranks of Lawyers, that group of kids who didn't understand Math but somehow ended up in the only lucrative profession that doesn't require any knowledge of scientific riguor.
Ok, I forgot Hollywood actors.

Terry_157April 6, 2009 11:54 AM

For consideration: Cyber WMD?

Suppose a group of professional "hackers" obtain control over a pilotless aircraft and direct its payload to target a friendly site, how does this become classified under U.S.C.?
Or gain control over battlefield systems in a combat theatre and redirect those weapon systems?

Another group of hackers obtain control over Space SAT or weapons systems and those are redirected?

Another group control over FAA and cause deaths within the aviation community?

A large scale cyber attack that causes critical infrastructure damage to systems, property and costs lives? Creates havoc and economic instability, panic etc.

Flying a plane into a building or setting off a bio weapon in a large city is certainly a act of terror but what about a cyber attack that creates terror within the act of itself such as bringing down the national power grid or Internet? Everything in our society is on computers - all is digitized - we have great dependencies on these systems - to shut them down or damage them could create significant damage. Is this covered properly in U.S.C. or does the defination need to be expanded?

T

John CampbellApril 6, 2009 11:58 AM

If you don't insert overly broad definitions into the law, you cannot execute them capriciously.

Consider sexual harassment laws in the workplace these days, the threshold to being declared a "harasser" (somehow that word doesn't sound right) is set pretty low... and a line easily crossed... making them very easy to use capriciously.

(chuckles)

Remember, any "stalker" can be an "admirer" if they fulfill two (or more) of these three attributes:

A)ttractive
A)vailable
A)ffluent.

So we just need to cough up three letters to make a WMD *not* a Weapon of Mass Destruction, and, from what I read in Bruce's post, damn near anything can apply.

Spill some ammonia and bleach, accidentally... instant weapon of mass destruction.

Sneeze or cough in the wrong place...

The real question, as mentioned above, is whether intentions can be discerned, afterwards, since inadvertent "innocent" incidents can trigger a disaster.

Anyone here recall "Connections" by James Burke?

mcbApril 6, 2009 12:11 PM

The devil, and the wiggle room, is in the details...

"18 U.S.C. 2332a...(vi) device similar to any of the devices described in the preceding clauses;"

"18 U.S.C. 921...(C) any combination of parts either designed or intended for use in converting any device into any destructive device described in subparagraph (A) or (B) and from which a destructive device may be readily assembled."

So be good for goodness sake!

Kyle WilsonApril 6, 2009 12:13 PM

This also seems to cover sharpened sticks coated in feces (punji sticks).

I'm somewhat flabbergasted that this is tagged as 'mass' destruction as that would classify nearly all military weapons (aside from infantry rifles) as WMD. It would be interesting to see some country begin using this section to protest actions against them. As soon as th first marine lobs a grenade in action, we have (by our own legal definitions) deployed a weapon of mass destruction... Seems like a definitional mistake in the long run.

Kyle WilsonApril 6, 2009 12:13 PM

This also seems to cover sharpened sticks coated in feces (punji sticks).

I'm somewhat flabbergasted that this is tagged as 'mass' destruction as that would classify nearly all military weapons (aside from infantry rifles) as WMD. It would be interesting to see some country begin using this section to protest actions against them. As soon as th first marine lobs a grenade in action, we have (by our own legal definitions) deployed a weapon of mass destruction... Seems like a definitional mistake in the long run.

wkwillisApril 6, 2009 2:48 PM

A shotgun firing poisoned buckshot is effective against armored troops at short (100 meter) range. If fired into crowds it is also effective in killing small numbers of people. Not as many as a car bomb, but still...
A shotgun firing squash head ammunition is effective against armored troops at short range. Also armored cars, etc.

Both are illegal. Should they be?

Governments have killed tens of millions of unarmed citizens. What is the greater threat, criminals or governments?

karrdeApril 6, 2009 2:50 PM

I'll repeat what "Anonymous" above said.

Most of the Destructive Device section is copied verbatim from the 1934 National Firearms Act.

The shotgun-exception was put in because without it, the NFA could have severely restricted every duck hunter in the country, instead of gangsters who collected Destructive Devices and Machine Guns.

(For the uninitiated, the 12-gauge shotgun is the most popular size of shotgun in North America. It fires shells with a diameter of 0.729 inches.)

As a final thought, this definition of Mass Destruction seems to take the Mass part out of the equation.

mcbApril 6, 2009 2:51 PM

@ Dave X

"What should we call real WMD now? IDDs: Insanely Destructive Devices?"

You're getting there. Since even a home-made pipe bomb is now a WMD that would make even the lowest yield fission bomb http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/... an Outlandishly Powerful Implement Of Insane Devastation...OPIOID

wkwillisApril 6, 2009 2:52 PM

Gas or aerosol is a very effective way to kill soldiers used as occupation forces. The soldiers are in groups, away from the local population, in known locations.

karrdeApril 6, 2009 3:10 PM

It seems that this kind of law-writing is becoming more common. After a widely-publicised problems with lead content on toys imported from China, a law was passed which put heavy fines on selling any item not tested for lead content for use by children.
(see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CPSIA )

The wording of that law appears, on its face, to force every library, used-book-seller, secondhand-clothes shop, and resale store to test every item in inventory, or face the possibility of million-dollar fines.

Enforcement has't been heavy yet, but there are a lot of worried people in the resale business. Small-scale manufacturers are also worried.

It seems an example of an attempt to centralize power among the regulators and bureaucracies of United States, rather than write law to intelligently address an issue.

As an addendum, I'll repeat what "Anonymous" above said.

Most of the Destructive Device section is copied verbatim from the 1934 National Firearms Act. The Destructive Devices section was originally designed to make it harder for Prohibition-era gangsters to legally arm themselves with individual weapons like grenades, mortars. If Rocket-Propelled Grenades existed at the time, they were also covered.

Expanding this to assert that man-portable Destructive Devices are also Weapons of Mass Destruction seems absurd in the extreme. But absurdities are not hard to find in weapons law....

(For extra fun, find a discussion-board full of gun-nuts and ask questions about the NFA, the 1968 GCA, the 1986 Hughes Amendment to the FOPA, and 1993 Brady Bill, and which one was effective in reducing gun crime in in the United States...

URL's:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/...
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gun_Control_Act
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/FOPA
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brady_bill
)

BrettApril 6, 2009 3:23 PM

@All

I think everyone is missing the point "mass destruction". Mass, not as in a number of people, but as in an amount of matter.

Each one of the different things “destroys” some amount of matter. They could even put back in the shotguns!

AnonymousApril 6, 2009 3:49 PM

Vomit, especially chunky pea laden vomit is a WMD!

Looks like we all should be in jail, or in the grave for setting off WMD!

From a contradiction, anything follows. Including:

What great and enlightened leadership we have had!

Keep up the good security blog reporting. People are finally getting it, like legal world as well with foreign works public domain, copyright theft law is unconstitutional, of Golan v Holder, see groklaw, todays date.

NostromoApril 6, 2009 3:50 PM

American politicians like redefining words to promote misunderstanding, usually to make offenses sound more serious than they are.

In Maryland some years ago, exceeding the speed limit by 15mph was defined to be "reckless driving". So if you drove along a straight, deserted freeway with visibility of miles at a speed which was perfectly legal in most European countries, you could be convicted of "reckless driving", which sounds like a very bad crime. (The limit in MD was 55 then, I don't know what it is now. And no, in case you wondered, I was never cited for any moving vehicle violation in MD.)

SteveApril 6, 2009 4:01 PM

@Clive

was "The US is the only country in the world to use nukes against an opposing force..." just a rambling thought or did you have a point to make?

HJohnApril 6, 2009 4:07 PM

@Nostromo: "American politicians like redefining words to promote misunderstanding, usually to make offenses sound more serious than they are."
______________

It's a knife that cuts both ways. If they define something too generally, it can be argued the definition applies when it doesn't. If they define something too specifically, then someone can argue that the definition doesn't apply when it does. And finding the perfect balance is near impossible.

I don't know how much "promoting misunderstanding" is the intent, or how much of the intent to give themselves some wiggle room when things that should be included can be debated. Maybe a little of both.

RogerApril 6, 2009 4:18 PM

Just to clarify this for some people who seem slightly confused: this definition is an internal US law that is unrelated to the normal definition in international law.

The term "Weapons of Mass Destruction" is much older than this law, originated not with Pentagon propagandists but in debates among international jurists in the 1970s and 1980s (I first read it in a SIPRI publication from late 1970s), and is a fairly well defined term. While the term is not itself defined in international law, from decades of scholarly usage it is generally accepted as an umbrella of the definitions given in three specific international anti-proliferation treaties (CWC, NPT and BWC; some commentators add a fourth treaty to the mix, but that is not usual.)


The point of the article here is not that the definition has expanded in international law, but that the definition used in an internal US law is severely at odds with the international meaning, and, indeed, at odds with common sense.

ScaredApril 6, 2009 4:36 PM

Obviously The Holy Hand Grenade is a WMD, but what about The World's Funniest Joke?
"Mein Dock haff no Nose."
"How does it Schmell?"
Etc...

RoyApril 6, 2009 4:43 PM

The news media have dirty hands in this as well. Those recent shootings with several victims each are being marketed as 'mass murders'.

frankbApril 6, 2009 5:49 PM

"and virtually every muzzle-loading military long arm for that matter, legally qualifies as an WMD."

http://www4.law.cornell.edu/uscode/18/...

Muzzleloaders are legally classified as "antiques" and are exempt from being distructive devices. Go to a Civil War re-enactment and you will see lots of muzzleloading cannons and .58 caliber rifles.

The potato guns are legal too if they are powered by "black powder, or a black powder substitute".

NeighborcatApril 6, 2009 7:34 PM

Cool! Not only would the hairspray powered potato cannon be a WMD, but so would the hairspray, potato, and whatever you chose for a barrel and source of ignition (Got a match?) even if not assembled. I guess hairspray could be a "black powder substitute".

Personally I use PVC pipe for the barrel, acetylene from miners carbide as the propellant, and the best part, the piezo igniter from a gas barbeque pit for ignition, but I digress. It's a bad habit of mine, making me a....

...wait for it....

Writer of Much Digression.

Anyway, what I take away from such laws -those that place a majority of the US population a judicial interpretation away from being federal felons- is that we the people have the government we deserve.

(BTW, potato cannons meet the legal definition of a firearm in many local jurisdictions too, and yes, it does make them more fun.)

NC

Rose by any Other NameApril 7, 2009 12:07 AM

@Roy: "Those recent shootings with several victims each are being marketed as 'mass murders'. "

This usage of the expression "mass murder" has been around for as long as I can remember (more than 40 yrs). I haven't seen an official definition, but it seems to refer to the murder within a limited time (say, a few hours) of more than 2 or 3 people, especially when the killer and victims are not from a single family.

As far as I can tell, the usage of this term has been pretty consistent, and is not part of the reaction to 9/11.

WMD is a separate term, with its own history. It was meant to exclude widely "accepted" battlefield weapons. For example, the huge "blockbuster" high-explosive bombs dropped by the USAF in WW II were not considered WMD, even though a single bomb could kill hundreds by a "lucky" hit. Nor were high-explosive torpedoes considered WMD, even though a volley of only 3 killed approximately 9000, mostly civilians, in 1945.

Before 9/11, WMD usually meant nuclear explosives, and modern toxic gas/aerosol weapons or bioweapons. What set WMD apart, was that against certain types of targets, the use of a small number (as few as one) has a high probability to inflict casualties in the tens of thousands.

Since 9/11, in the USA "WMD" has been stretched to include "anything we imagine a terrorist might use," so the term has become almost meaningless. Note that the statute cited above appears to include ordinary land mines, which on the average kill much less than one person per detonation, and very rarely kill more than one.

Of course, in the 9/11 attacks, civil airliners were used with the intent of mass destruction. Probably, the mass murderers from al Qaeda expected each of the NYC aircraft to kill more than 10,000; in practice, each killed more than 1000. But airliners are not included in the legal definition of WMD shown in Bruce's post.
________________________________

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less."
"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."
"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master - that's all."

-- 'Through the Looking Glass'

BF SkinnerApril 7, 2009 6:24 AM

"a rifle which the owner intends to use solely for sporting, recreational or cultural purposes."

Cultural? Anyone have an exemplar of cultural use of firearms?

BF SkinnerApril 7, 2009 6:33 AM

@paul "would just seem to be an invitation to selective prosecution. "

Don't we want selective prosecution? Isn't that where the application of judgement is necessary in a world where cases vary often looking like members of the same class of events?

I don't want an R/C modeler, or pumpkin chunker, prosecuted for weapons manufacture but I do want someone prosecuted whose intent uses the same skills to manufacture a cruise missle or
mortar.

Lis RibaApril 7, 2009 6:59 AM

According to Massachusetts law, jump ropes and tin-can telephones are illegal to carry without a firearms license.

No joke.

http://www.mass.gov/legis/laws/mgl/269-10.htm paragraph (b) references "zoobow, also known as klackers or kung fu sticks, or any similar weapon consisting of two sticks of wood, plastic or metal connected at one end by a length of rope, chain, wire or leather"

I guess some lawmaker saw a few too many bad martial arts movies...

FramecrashApril 7, 2009 7:27 AM

Are there any weapons, by this definition, that are not about "mass destruction"? Perhaps we need a word that conveys both the malicious intent and the destructive capability. How about "weapon"?

I don't get it.

AnonymousApril 7, 2009 8:09 AM

Rose by any other name said it well, WMD has been stretched to include anything we think that terrorists might want to use. Of course this sort of lexical silliness isn't exclusive to the U.S. ISTR a couple of years ago some people were trying to push the idea that small arms were WMDs because in aggregate they kill large numbers of people in armed conflicts.

mcbApril 7, 2009 8:39 AM

"'a rifle which the owner intends to use solely for sporting, recreational or cultural purposes.'

Cultural? Anyone have an exemplar of cultural use of firearms?"

You mean other than defending mine against yours?

Perhaps the exemption is meant to protect them as dress up on weekends to recreate their favorites F&I, Revolutionary, or Civil War battles?

Clive RobinsonApril 7, 2009 9:52 AM

@ Steve,

'was "The US is the only country in the world to use nukes against an opposing force..." just a rambling thought or did you have a point to make?'

The point I was making was that the US appeares unique in two ways when it comes to what most people accept as WMD,

1, Their over reaching legal definition.

2, The fact that they are the only country to have used nukes against civilians of another nation.

As I noted in my original comment,

"Perhaps the intention of the law is partialy to try and take the "stigma away" by saying every country has WMD. Or for other political purposes."

Few countries have used WMD offensivly they comprise the UN Veto Holders and a few other nations.

Of the "other nations" those that are not European have been regarded as being "oppresive" or run by dictators / despots.

For amongst other reasons using WMD against civilian populations.

No doubt others will point out the occurances where UN Veto Holders are also guilty of using WMD against civilian populations.

The problem is some of the UN Veto Holders are very "two faced" about these issues.

As I pointed out N.Korea's test firing may not be unrelated to this.

I suspect that after the way India and Pakistan where treated after becoming "nuke capable" compared to before is actualy activly encoraging some nations to develop nukes and deployment systems as barganing tools.

One other country has a unique claim to fame with regards nukes and that is South Africa. Let's hope that they do not remain unique for much longer.

Clive RobinsonApril 7, 2009 10:19 AM

@ Steve,

One other thing to consider is "energy security", it is unfortunatly very much tied in with WMD these days.

Oil&gas is a little like land in that as Mark Twain once observed “Buy land, they're not making it anymore”. And the level of energy falling onto the Earths land surface that is directly usable is currently very very small.

The cost of making use of what some consider to be "free energy" is actually quite high unless plant biology is involved. Part of this is due to there currently being a very small market so "mass market" pricing does not yet apply (though Germany are making big inroads on this). Then there are the secondary costs such as "land". Whilst development at sea is considered to have considerable (but not insurmountable) risk.

It is no conicidence then that several industrialised countries are looking to build more nuclear reactor capability.

However some of these industrialised countries also want to deny the same technology to other nations that are not seen as being "part of the nuke owning club", just in case...

The history of "water rights" will give you a good indicator of where the "energy rights" argument is likley to go.

Major Variola (ret)April 7, 2009 3:09 PM

In Calif. a piece of dry ice in a plastic soda
bottle is a WMD.

One wonders when vinegar and baking
soda will have to be purchased with cash.

SNiApril 7, 2009 5:53 PM

Old news... I whinged about this in April 2006 and then again in April 2008

extract:

"Under 2332a's more expansive definition prosecutors have brought charges, and secured convictions, for the use of "WMD" in multiple cases, including offenses involving truck bombs, pipe bombs, shoe bombs, cactus needles coated with botulin toxin, etc., etc. More recently, this was one count against Zacarias Moussaoui in his conviction and sentencing..."

BF SkinnerApril 8, 2009 6:08 AM

@mcb - use in defense of property or re-enacting?

For cultural I was more thinking the way a Sikh carries a kirphan.

I regard that as "recreational".
But you bring up a point. Any weapon designed for self defense is not sporting, recreational, or cultural is it? If I buy a shotgun exclusivly for home defense doesn't my intent take it out of "particularly suitable for sporting purposes" into the larger meaning of 4(B)?

mcbApril 8, 2009 12:18 PM

@ BF Skinner

"For cultural I was more thinking the way a Sikh carries a kirphan."

Or "cultural purposes" might include traditional animal harvests by native peoples...

"If I buy a shotgun exclusively for home defense doesn't my intent take it out of "particularly suitable for sporting purposes" into the larger meaning of 4(B)?"

You could make that case but hunting shotguns of 10 gauge or smaller have been granted a sporting use exemption as a class. The traditional short-barreled, pump-action police shotgun (at least those fitted with sights) are also popular tools for deer hunting and bear defense.

BF SkinnerApril 8, 2009 4:56 PM

@mcb "traditional animal harvests by native peoples"

Takes us back into the sporting / recreation category even if it is a cultural event...

Whaling maybe? Harpoon guns are pretty big.

AnonymousApril 9, 2009 10:12 AM

@ BF

"'traditional animal harvests by native peoples'

Takes us back into the sporting / recreation category even if it is a cultural event..."

That may not be precisely true under law. While hunting or shooting are sport or recreation to us, firearms may be used for cultural/religious/traditional undertakings of profound significance stipulated in treaty language for native peoples, such as the harvesting of marine mammals. The whaling in Barrow AK starts with a hand thrown harpoon but uses a rifle for the finish.

Bill Higgins-- Beam JockeyApril 9, 2009 11:45 AM

I know the phrase "weapons of mass destruction" is part of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty; I think I read somewhere that the phrase originated there.

See http://www.armscontrol.org/documents/outerspace for more detail.

The basic idea, of course, was to eschew orbiting nuclear bombs.

At the time, I don't think chemical or biological weapons were considered to be part of WMD. Putting them in space didn't make a lot of sense as a military threat. In any case, there were separate treaties covering chemical and biological weapons.

WadeApril 9, 2009 6:18 PM

"I have to wonder how many of those who vote in favor of the laws realize how general they really are.."

I think most of them do know how general they are. Personally, I'm surprised that it is so specific.

With any kind of law dealing with "weapons", they have to be vague, because the very idea of a weapon is vague. A weapon is a tool you use to hurt someone. A tool is a thing you use (or intend to use) for a particular purpose. So any thing can be a weapon, if that's what you intend it for.

E.g., Someone picks up a hammer, thinking "I'm going to use this at work today." If that someone is a carpenter, then the hammer is not a weapon. If that someone is a collections agent for the mob, then the hammer is a weapon. It's all about how the thing is intended to be used.

Because absolutely anything can be a weapon (allegedly, people have been smothered by a pillow!), any definition of weapon must be general enough to cover anything. Otherwise a bad guy will simply pick a thing that is not on your list to hurt people with, and claim that it isn't legally a weapon.

PS: I hate it when the airline people ask me if I have anything that is a weapon or can be used as a weapon with me. I think "I can choke someone with shoelaces; I can stab with the pointy bit on my belt buckle; I can smack someone with my boots; I can put my spare change in the toe of my sock and swing it at someone; I can hold my keys in my fist with the pointy bits sticking out between the knuckles and punch someone; I can put the plastic bag my lunch is in over someone's face to smother them. I've got potential weapons all over me." Then I say "No, of course not."

NadiaApril 10, 2009 6:13 PM

Warren Buffet has a different definition for weapons of mass destruction. He refers to some financial derivatives. Too bad we didn't hear him before this crisis.

ShooterGirlJune 15, 2009 12:58 PM

Cultural use of weapons: How about the firing of cannons to celebrate the 4th of July? Or the use of elephant rifles as decorations in a club or lodge? Or even an exhibit of illegal weapons at a museum?

It seems those uses could be classified as cultural uses to me.

TedSeptember 24, 2009 1:04 PM

What I find scary is the US policy of responding to a WMD attack with our own WMDs. The only WMDs we're supposed to have is nuclear weapons (no gas, no biological weapons).

So, if someone in Canada shoots a spud gun projectile into the US, we can nuke them.

BulaSeptember 24, 2009 1:28 PM

So professional fireworks are WMD!

Some have more than a pound of explosives!

And have killed many people in accidents.

Are we going to outlaw the 4th of July?

Maybe we could rename it WMD Day!

Mark J KarelisApril 28, 2011 11:52 PM

In 2004 I pled guilty (under the advice of a public defender) to possession of WMD's. M-80's & similar devices, all made with flash powder- I was deemed a terrorist by most,served jail time,and I am still trying to appeal this decision- this law is no joke-

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