Saturday, January 26, 2013

Definitions

David Hardy has a post noting an amusing clarity problem with an Arizona law regarding explosives and firearms. Here is one part of the law:

Arizona Revised Statutes §13-3101(A). Definitions. In this chapter, unless the context otherwise requires:

3. "Explosive" means any dynamite, nitroglycerine, black powder, or other similar explosive material, including plastic explosives. Explosive does not include ammunition or ammunition components such as primers, percussion caps, smokeless powder, black powder and black powder substitutes used for hand loading purposes.

Given this definition, is black powder legally an explosive or not? I take it that they intend to make an exception for black powder "used for hand loading purposes," but people can be excused for being a bit baffled. However, it gets worse:

4. "Firearm" means any loaded or unloaded handgun, pistol, revolver, rifle, shotgun or other weapon that will expel, is designed to expel or may readily be converted to expel a projectile by the action of an explosive

Since, however, #3 told us that ammunition and ammunition components do not count as explosives, what counts as a firearm?

The problem is not strictly logical, since there is an interpretation on which the whole thing is consistent, namely, the one in which "used for hand loading purposes" modifies the whole phrase "ammunition or ammunitions components such as primers, percussion caps, smokeless powder, black powder and black powder substitutes", but rather functional, since the whole point of the 'Definitions' section of a law is to clarify things, and no English-speaker would interpret the definitions the way they would have to be interpreted unless forced to do so by context. Since the only 'context' for such definitions, however, is the whole statute, the only way to interpret these definitions is to look at the entire statute and eliminate logically impossible and strange interpretations; something has gone terribly wrong.

This is, incidentally, another bit of evidence that Socrates's insistence -- that we should try to avoid defining things by listing examples -- was very wise.

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