Law Hypothetical: Legality of SF weapons

Many of the weapons laws on the books relate to weapons that are actually commonly made and available. For example, Virginia law puts more restrictions on “firearms” than other weapons such as knives, swords, and bows and arrows. Afaik even a convicted felon can walk around many areas with a sword on his belt without committing a crime (though he might gain a lot of unwanted attention from police which could lead to harassment)

Suppose, for a minute, that your favorite or not-so-favorite weapons from science fiction suddenly became available. What would be the regulatory status of a Star Wars lightsaber or a Star Trek Type 2 phaser? Would they be legal for civilian carry in many jurisdictions to a greater extent than firearms because the laws in place regarding firearms are too specific to chemical projectile weapons to include energy weapons in their scope, leaving phasers in the same category as swords? What about a handheld railgun?

It’s really hard to answer such a question because of the wildly varying state laws. You point out that person is permitted to carry a sword in Virginia, but not so in Texas. Also, in Texas the weapons laws extend to any new invention intended to serve the function of a weapon.

For example, Tatom v. State, 555 S.W.2d 459 (Tex. Crim. App. 1977) found that a pair of nunchucks was a “club,” because even though it was not explicitly mentioned in the law it still served the same purpose of battering people upside the head. In this example, a lightsaber might still be categorized as an “illegal knife” or sword because it serves the same function and intent, even if the form is novel. (http://ss.utpb.edu/media/files/university-police/TEXAS-WEAPON-LAWS.pdf)

Projectile weapons are trickier. For example, I’ve read in many places that flamethrowers (directed energy weapons) are not regulated by the BATF because they are not “firearms” in the sense of a explosively directed projectile weapon. (http://www.thehighroad.org/archive/index.php/t-395748.html&) The same goes for things like airguns and crossbows… since there is no explosive propellant, they are not strictly firearms. Now, there might be local laws that define it as an illegal “weapon,” as described above.

So a magnetically propelled railgun or phaser would (temporarily) be exempt from the Federal definition of a firearm.

And I would guess that, if phasers, disruptors, plasma pistols, handheld railguns, or other SF type weapons actually surfaced and people start to be seen carrying, selling, or using them in apparent defiance of the purpose of local weapons law, applicable legislatures would move to add energy or magnetic weapons to the law, though I could see some conservatives trying to halt the process on principle. So there might only be a window of a few weeks between the time that phasers first go on sale to the day that the governor signs the bill requiring a Firearm Permit, now renamed a “Dangerous Ranged Weapon Permit” to possess a phaser.

(yes, I know railguns exist in real life, but they are heavy and expensive - not something you can just walk in and buy at Al’s Gun Shop)

Generally speaking, everything is legal until made illegal. Meaning, your phaser would be legal “by default” until a law was written concerning it. (I had a college professor tell me a story about a man in California who bought a SCUD missile and truck and kept it parked in a city; the State scrambled to write a law making ownership of SCUD missiles illegal. I haven’t ever researched whether there was any truth to this story.)

But as other people have mentioned, laws can be phrased to pre-emptively cover cases that didn’t exist at the time the law was written. The Texas example, “a new invention designed to serve the function of a weapon”.

Canada has a law about “possession of a dangerous weapon”. I have heard this applied to anything - hockey stick, baseball bat, garden rake, pair of scissors, automobile - if you demonstrate intent to be dangerous with it, it qualifies as a weapon. You carry around a sword (or knife) and someone complains that you acted threatening, you can be charged… or maybe they’ll just detain you while they investigate.

There’s also the charge “possession of a concealed weapon” - not sure what it covers. I know one acquaintance in college showed up with the traditional “sword in a cane”; then got very worried and defensive over the rest of us playing with it. Apparently, he was scared that he could get charged if word got out what he was carrying. I assume after the first bit of “fun” it stayed home.

Then there are specific prohibited weapons (nunchuks and throwing stars are illegal in Canada, thanks to paranoid parliamentarians- not that I’m complaining) . Plus, certain gun control measures.

To exclude pellet guns and BB guns, a firearm is something with a muzzle velocity over (IIRC) 500fps.

So I don’t know what the US laws are, but I assume they have something similar.

If particle beam emitters are outlawed, only outlaws will have particle beam emitters.

Flamethrowers are not firearms!? Now that’s a hoot!

According to articles I’ve read from time to time over the years (sorry, no cite at my fingertips), some gun control laws are apparently quite specific – maybe too specific – about what they prohibit. This comes up in cases of “assault style” weapons. It seems that every time some legislature writes a law prohibiting assault rifles, they have to get real nitpicky and specific to define exactly what an assault rifle is. Then the manufacturers will make some trivial change to their next model year, like some minor styling change in the hand grip, and the existing law doesn’t cover it. ISTM I’ve seen articles discussing this now and then over they years.

ETA: Okay, here’s a cite (of sorts): The Wiki on Federal Assault Weapons Ban discusses some of the criteria that defined a semi-automatic assault weapon in the now-expired law. It had lots of details, so I think manufacturers could evade the law by making technical changes to their guns so they wouldn’t fall under the law.

There are already some pretty powerful hand-held lasers, that while you probably aren’t going to kill someone with, you could instantaneously blind them for sure, and possibly even burn them.

I wonder if any of these will someday be classified as firearms?

They already charge people who shine even ordinary lasers at aircraft interfering with the crew operations. OSHA probably has safety rules about laser use, and there are warnings plastered all over relatively harmless laser equipment. You can be charged if you injure someone with a baseball bat or a 2x4, I don’t doubt the same would apply to frying them with a laser.

I suppose the OP is - can they stop you from carrying a lethal laser or rail gun down the street, if you act harmless and don’t appear to be threatening anyone? I suppose a rail gun would be a gun, depending on the local persnickity legal definition, since it ejects a projectile at greater than 500fps even if it is not chemically powered. (What is the law on high-powered air guns in the USA?) How would this differ from carrying a bow or corssbow down the street? I’m sure the police would at least stop you to see what’s going on…

The trouble with lasers is that you have to define a power threshhold so the idiot with the LED laser on his keychain is not charged with possession of WMD and sent to Guantanamo (would that be so bad?).

<nerd nitpick>Star Trek phasers and Star Wars blasters aren’t lasers, although they appear similar they work on different fictional principles</nerd nitpick>

As I recall from a Cracked.com article, flamethrowers are (relatively) unregulated because they’re humanity’s only defense against the Africanized killer bee, which is liable to become a nationwide environmental disaster in 10, 20 years.

I’m allowed to carry a sword in Virginia?! Why am I just now finding this out?

And yes, I imagine that if lightsabers, phasers, laser guns, blaster pistols, etc. existed, laws would be quickly passed to regulate their use. I doubt that anyone aside from the most virulent pro-weapons person would object, considering that a type-2 phaser set at the maximum, level 16 has the ability to explosively decouple 650 cubic meters of rock in a single discharge. (And every level from 7 on up kills instantly.)

You hardly want every kook with a weapons permit walking around with something capable of immediately vaporizing your house.

Don’t the ATF licence ‘destructive devices’ or ‘any other weapons’ with a $200 ‘tax stamp’?

Would the NRA support the right to bear phasers?

Nitpick - there is no such thing as nunchucks.

(And yes, I’ve seen the Chuck Norris picture)

You are right - this is my question. I believe that existing laws against Assault and Murder are flexible enough to include cases of injuring or killing someone with a novel device. What matters is causation and intent. If you swung a lightsaber at someone, knowing that the lightsaber can easily kill someone, with intent to kill your victim, and the lightsaber actually caused the person’s death, I don’t see any reason why that would not be murder, even though the authors of the murder law didn’t consider lightsabers in their definition.

What I’m after is whether or not it would be legal to have, carry, sell, or buy a lightsaber as long as nobody involved has any specific intent to use it in a crime like murder, robbery, or assault - e.g. it is possessed for “self defense” and the person doesn’t intend to pull it out except in bona-fide self defense.

OK, so what word do you use for a club based on a threshing flail, consisting of a pair of rigid rods joined together by a length of chain or cord?

You can do what the California Penal Code does, and call them nunchaku. List which purports to be all state laws/codes dealing with 'chucks, here.

As far as the OP goes, in the U.S., what are the laws concerning destructive devices, and how does a device get on the list at the BATFE? Seems like that might be a start. Also, see the U.S. Code definition for “Weapon of Mass Destruction” and see if your purported weapon fits there.

Are you sure?

Nunchaku.

That’s the Japanese word. It is pronounced very similar to nunchuck, and thus was anglicized under that spelling. Now hyperforeignization has kicked in, and everyone thinks you are required to go back to the Japanese word, even though said spelling would make you pronounce the term incorrectly.

By that logic, there’s no such thing as beef.

It’s buef, you sons of a silly person. Now go away, or I shall taunt you a second time!