So let's say there's someone who can shoot fire out of their hands. It's understandable that some people would be nervous. My main question is would this man's literal firepower count as a weapon, and thus be subject to laws pertaining to firearms? If no would there be precedent to alter laws to fold this man's ability into firearm legislation.
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After making several comments against answers here I need to formulate a complete answer from my perspective to this (actually important) question. I'll state at the outset that this answer is based on the Common Law practices of Australia and similar Commonwealth countries. Let's start with the short answer;
It doesn't matter what superpower you have; you haven't used a 'weapon' on someone else when fighting them. There's a very simple reason for this; weapons are effectively tools. They are something that you pick up and brandish, aim, or throw at your opponent, and they have to (by definition) be separate from the body.
This is a far more important point than you might realise; the minute that we call a fist a 'weapon' you're effectively curtailing the right of that person to defend themselves. Ever. What's worse, you're on a slippery slope.
Has a trained psychologist who utters a hurtful rebuke at someone who then goes and commits suicide committed assault with a deadly weapon? They've used their mind to attack another; surely that counts if a fist does.
In the heat of a home invasion, the owner of the property bites the invader. BUT, the homeowner is HIV positive. Is that person's teeth / blood / saliva a deadly weapon?
At what point do body parts cease being weapons and the person themselves become weapons? Trained special forces soldiers have skills that equate to superpowers by comparison to the average person on the street; does that mean you have the right to tease or taunt them mercilessly until they retaliate simply because you know that they're not 'allowed' to respond?
Of course not. Besides; with deadly weapon assaults, the person can be restricted from owning those kinds of weapons in the future. Even computers fit that category. But hands? Are we really talking about amputating the hands of skilled combatants that make a mistake? For mine, that's a bridge too far.
That said, what DOES fit is aggravated assault. The reason why weaponed assault is a separate class of crime is that there is a known amount of damage that one person can usually do to another without tools or weapons. Generally speaking, that means you have a level playing field. While I personally abhor violence in any form and have zero tolerance for it, the law recognises that weapons make any conflict uneven.
Where weapons are NOT used and the conflict is still uneven, we have aggravation. What this essentially means is that people with higher levels of combat skill have an obligation to curtail their aggression and attacks on others because of the fact that they are far more effective fighters. This means that they commit aggravated assault, not simple assault if they hurt someone seriously.
I want to state at this point that I'm not saying that the superperson is not liable for the damage they cause, and the punishment should still fit the crime, and in all probability the laws around aggravated assault will allow for penalties that match (or more) those for assault with a deadly weapon 30 minutes after the superperson commits this crime.
Soldiers receive strong disciplinary training as part of receiving this skill; the superperson may not. Arguably, this is one of those complicated situations where a person with (say) diminished capacity may be guilty of an offence that is both mitigated and aggravated. It's a complex argument in which the danger to the public has to be taken into account as much as the mental and physical capacity of the person involved.
To give an example; in Australia, intoxication has often been seen as a mitigating circumstance in assault. In other words, someone who takes a swing at you when they're drunk is seen to have diminished capacity of their behaviour and therefore less responsible for their actions.
Over the last decade or so however, there has been an increasing prevalence of what is now known as one punch attacks, or the 'Coward's Punch' being perpetrated on random people on the street by heavily intoxicated people. The victims have died, been made quadriplegics or paraplegics, or suffered other serious or permanent disabilities. As a consequence, most states have changed the laws to make intoxication an aggravating factor, not a mitigating factor. The argument is that just like the soldier carries with him an obligation to control his behaviour, the drunkard carries an obligation to limit his anti-social behaviour by removing himself from public places while intoxicated, especially if he's a 'mean' drunk and knows a trick or two in attacking others.
This (respectfully) is only different in relation to scale. Your superperson can burn and disfigure people horribly, and may not possess the self control necessary to constrain him or her self when agitated. This is not only an aggravating factor, it's a serious one and needs to be considered accordingly.
Good law acts as a deterrent to the populace AND an example to others. It does so in a context of fair and objective assessment. In this case, the outcome of any attack by the superperson will be serious, and the superperson needs commensurate control to balance that out. If the only way that can be achieved is to have very serious penalties in place that make the superperson think twice about any attack, then so be it.
But, this is not the same as wielding a weapon as that is always a choice. This superperson simply cannot put down her 'weapon', even if she wanted to. For that reason alone, I'd be deeply concerned if his or her powers were categorised as a weapon. It's a slippery slope which leads to everyone's unique strength (super or not) being a reason for that person to be controlled in some manner and if that's not a definition for an authoritarian regime, I don't know what is.
The real answer is that the laws will adapt to do what they need to do.
There are some interesting questions about this regarding whether fists of a skilled fighter are considered to be deadly weapons. This article cites two sides of the issue. Jamuel Parks was charged with aggravated assault, under the argument that as a MMA fighter, his fists were deadly weapons. However, that case was difficult to draw a precedent from this because he plead guilty. It is not clear whether a jury would have found his fists to be deadly weapons in an actual court. The same article also cites Ray v. State, a case where the court had decided that hands/feet were not deadly weapons, even if they were used to kill someone.
The US code does make it clear that such a fire skill would not qualify as a firearm. Firearms are defined to be devices, and an innate skill like that would almost certainly not be considered to be a device.
Probably yes, and as such subject to some sort of legislation.
I remember reading of some cases, in our real world, were people expert in martial arts where charged for improper usage of their hands, which in those cases were considered equivalent to weapons.
It's easy to imagine that a superhero, being way more powerful than a Bruce Lee or a Mike Tyson, would be also considered more dangerous in case of inappropriate usage of his/her skills, and therefore subject at least to registration.
Scottish law answer, as context for the kinds of issues that arise when defining an innate ability as a weapon. Note that Scots Law is a hybrid of Common Law and Civil Law - as such, is a good basis for discussion, as the system has many similarities to the majority of countries (either entirely common or civil law based).
No, and they Never will
Definition of an offensive weapon
In Scottish Law, an offensive weapon is defined as:
any article -
(a) made or adapted for use for causing injury to a person, or
(b) intended, by the person having the article, for use for causing injury to a person by—
. . . .(i) the person having it, or
. . . .(ii) some other person,
As such a weapon must firstly, be an article (an item or object) that can be made or adapted, and must be ownable. That is, parts of a human that can do damage, such as teeth, fists or legs, do not count as offensive weapons.
It should be noted at this point however, that Iron-man type abilities, or those involving implants may be considered offensive weapons. As such, the remainder of this answer assumes superpowers to be X-men style abilities that do not fit the definition above.
Note also, one of the penalties for carrying an offensive weapon is:
Where any person is convicted of an offence under subsection (1) above the court may make an order for the forfeiture or disposal of any weapon in respect of which the offence was committed.
Clearly, the disposal of a human that weild superpowers does not directly fit into this - as it would conflict with existing human rights laws. As such, superpowers cannot legally be *offensive weapons**.
Dangerous Dogs Act
The above is not to say that superpowers could not be made illegal though. A good use-case for how dangerous living things can be classified, is the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991:
An Act to prohibit persons from having in their possession or custody dogs belonging to types bred for fighting; to impose restrictions in respect of such dogs pending the coming into force of the prohibition; to enable restrictions to be imposed in relation to other types of dog which present a serious danger to the public; to make further provision for securing that dogs are kept under proper control; and for connected purposes.
This legislation provides restrictions on ownership of certain breeds of dogs, based on them being a danger to the public. Importantly, at no point are the dogs classified as weapons in this legislation - instead, that are covered separately with their own laws and regulations.
This means that owning a dangerous dog can have different penalties, and the control of these dogs can be applied differently to the control of offensive weapons.
For the case of superpowers, this is likely what would happen. A separate legislation would be enacted to cover the use of dangerous innate powers and the people who can weild them. It's an important distinction, as classification as a weapon would impose existing restrictions (such as confiscation/destruction) that would arguably not be enforcable to a human (due to other existing laws).
As shown above, the law on what consitutes a weapon is covered by existing legislation. This is likely applicable to most countries, where there will be specific punishments and regulations based on the idea of a weapon being a weildable device - and not an innate ability of a human.
To cover super-powers in the same legislation would be an extremely difficult legal minefield - having to avoid conflicts with any other laws that govern human rights. As such, it is extremely unlikely that a superpower will ever be classified as a weapon.
That said, it is not unlikely that they would be controlled separately. As shown with the Dangerous Dogs Act; legislation can be created to deal with a specific issue like this, with its own terms, regulations and penalties. This means that dangerous use of superpowers, would likely be called exactly that - and not shoe-horned into an existing terminology.
So, while super powers will likely never be classified as a weapon, they will likely be controlled via separate legislation.
I would say "yes, for sure", and I will use an example for that: Although it might depend on the legislation of every country, in general internationally, if you are a licensed martial artist (other cases might also be accepted, although it should be proved that you practice some sport combat or martial art), and if you harm someone, you can easily be charged, due to martial arts are considered an aggravation, and it is my understanding that this has a logic behind, mainly 2 reasons:
- you know how to fight, so, you can use your body and mind in a lethal way in a fight, at least, after a certain level (grade or belt, for example).
- more important, if you practice martial arts, you are supposed to be able to control a violent situation, in the way that you should be able to block or knock your opponent without harming him seriously, unless that opponent is another martial artist/trained fighter, of course. These 2 cases are limited to the case that you don't have any mental problem, but in that case probably you would be in some psychiatric hospital.
So, having superpowers should not very different. If you are not crazy and harm someone, you might have a legal problem. And if you are crazy, not much better ;)
There is no gun/weapon involved thus is legally an unarmed attack but you can bet your bottom dollar new laws would be drafted the next day.
My main question is would this man's literal firepower count as a weapon, and thus be subject to laws pertaining to firearms?
Almost anywhere on the planet, using such an ability to harm, threaten or intimidate anyone would be a criminal offense.
Firearms laws vary from place to place, but it would be use of a deadly weapon for sure.
In principle if they behaved themselves they'd be free to go about their business, just as I am as long as I don't beat up anyone with my hand.
This person would be helping government scientists with their questions.
Locked up somewhere (maybe nice, maybe not so nice). Almost certainly kept incommunicado and considered top secret.
The law would not be an issue and they would never see the light of day ( unless they were given fireproof and heat resistant windows for their prison :-) ). And it would be lucky for them if it was a government that got to them first, because they'd be in serious trouble if criminals or terrorists did.