BB guns and pellet guns act very similar to normal firearms, but are known for being significantly less powerful, leading you to ask, “Are BB guns and pellet guns considered firearms?”
Strictly speaking, pellet guns and BB guns are not firearms, but are sometimes regulated in the same laws that regulate firearms. For instance, it is illegal to discharge both firearms and airguns in the Boise, Idaho city limits, and doing so is a misdemeanor.
While many city, state, and national laws recognize that the two types of guns are different and that airguns are not firearms, they can treat them effectively the same, while some like New Jersey classify airguns as a type of firearm.
So I guess that there are two ways that airguns can count as a firearm. When the law says that they are firearms, and when the law effectively treats them the same. So, why do some laws treat airguns as firearms?
How do They Work, and What Makes Them So Different?
At the very beginning, the names of the two types of guns should provide hints. BB guns and pellet guns are known as airguns. Airguns use various means to generate a compression of air that is released at the trigger pull to propel a projectile forward.
Firearms work under principles that are similar, using the force of expanding gases to propel a projectile forward. The difference lies in how the expanding gases are generated.
Firearms will burn an explosive powder that is typically stored in a shell connected directly to the bullet being shot, with the projectile acting as a lid or a cap on the bullet assembly. When the round is shot, all of the powder is consumed in a chemical reaction, turning into a gas.
This amounts to a controlled explosion, with the expanding gas rushing down the barrel of the gun, moving the bullet, usually at super sonic speeds.
The compressed air used in airguns is not found in connection to the the projectile itself. The air is stored in some kind of reservoir found on the gun, or in the case of spring-powered airguns, generated at the trigger pull.
This makes firearms a much much more powerful version of an airgun. An impressive energy output for an airgun would be about 30 ft lbs, about one third of the energy output of a .22 caliber pistol.
Yeah. Your typical airgun that a child might start out on could only dream of getting a little higher than 1 ft lbs. No wonder airguns are often though of as toys. So why do governments consider them the same sometimes?
Why Do Laws Sometimes Consider Airguns Firearms?
Some governments consider airguns to be firearms because airguns do have enough energy to cause injury and sometimes death if misused. So, even though airguns are a much safer cousin to a firearm, they have the potential to be dangerous.
Your typical Red Ryder BB gun comes out at about 1.4 ft lbs, while the highest end airguns max out near 200 ft lbs (with some exceptions). A typical .22 caliber powder-burning rifle has nearly 150 ft lbs of muzzle energy, and there are very few firearms smaller than that.
Foot pounds is a measurement of energy, where one foot pound of energy (noted as ft lbs or fpe) is the energy needed to lift a one pound weight one foot into the air, so a BB from our Red Ryder has the same kinetic energy needed to move a 1.4 pound weight one foot into the air.
That doesn’t sound like a lot of energy, and it isn’t. If you remember though that that energy is concentrated into a small point, then it changes the math a little bit, making the BB better able to cut into things. There still is not a lot of energy in that BB, and that’s why the gun is suitable for children, but if you were to shoot someone point blank with it, a BB would lodge into the person fairly deep.
There have been unfortunate accidents involving BB guns that have resulted in death, and even though they are incredibly rare, caution and responsibility are necessary companions to the use of any gun.
In their attempt to make sure that airguns are in good company, some laws are made to treat them as firearms.
For instance, New Jersey classifies airguns as firearms, and therefore subjects them to all of the same regulations they do firearms, including the need to be sold by a federally licensed firearms dealer and the need to be bought by someone who has a Firearms Purchaser Identification Card.
Readers in the United Kingdom may also find it useful to know that air pistols over 6 ft lbs and air rifles over 12 ft lbs are effectively considered firearms, and require the use of a permit and so on.
When Are Airguns Considered Firearms?
This is a question that we will do our best to answer, but we cannot guarantee that we will answer for your area, as the world is a big place.
Across the United States, regulation of airguns differs wildly, but a good rule of thumb that you would do good to remember is that the more rural your location, the less likely you are to encounter an errant BB gun law.
Almost universally, you will find that municipalities do not appreciate airguns of any kind being discharged within city limits, and will often punish that as a misdemeanor under the same codes that prohibit discharging a firearm, like in Boise, Idaho, which considers it a misdemeanor to do exactly that.
We already mentioned New Jersey, but other large and populous places like New York City effectively ban them along with firearms. In fact, New York State barely touches on the subject of airguns, but Buffalo, New York keeps you from storing an airgun unless you meet certain criteria under the same law governing the storage of a firearm.
So in a large municipality it would be worth looking into what the laws do and say about airguns. You can search for them online by searching your municiaplity along with the key words “airgun laws”, but if you cannot find a resource online for that, a call to your local law enforcement should be able to help.
Do also note that if you use an airgun– be it BB or pellet gun– to assault or otherwise harm an individual, you have committed the crime with a deadly weapon, which is worse than normal assault, and the court may look at your air gun as an effective firearm, so just don’t. In fact, just don’t harm people, you’ll be happier that way.
This page on Giffords Law Center is full of information about how state governments in the US treat airguns. You can use it to look for your state and how your state will treat airguns, but keep in mind that cities within states are free to establish their own laws that do not run counter to state and national laws, so remember to look up your city laws or ask the police.
Other nations do count airguns as firearms, like India and the UK when the airgun is over a certain power level.
When do Airguns Not Count As Firearms?
In the United States, airguns will not otherwise be considered firearms, which allows for some good and some bad. Like for instance, in Idaho it is permissible to use an airgun in short range weapons seasons, as airguns do have a much smaller effective range, but because of their less powerful nature, they cannot all be used to hunt the same types of animals.
If Pellet Guns and BB Guns are so Much Weaker, then Why do People Use Them?
What a great question! I’m glad that you asked. That lack of power is often the appeal to airguns.
It certainly was when I was growing up. My father wanted my brother and I to enjoy the sport of shooting without having to couple the lack of judgment present in young boys with the increased danger of a firearm, even a .22 rifle. Because of this, we both got air rifles capable of firing both BB’s and pellets.
These guns were charged with a hand pump present on them, which would have made them great for pest control if we ever used them for that.
As far as hunting goes, airguns are gaining popularity in the community, as local and state governments learn more about them and their uses, and as hunters move toward the lower-powered airguns that provide more of a challenge.
Do note that if you are going to go hunting with an airgun, you might not enjoy using your multi pump airgun. You would probably prefer a break-barrel spring powered gun, or a precharged pneumatic (pcp).
If I Get an Airgun, do I Need to Follow the Same Safety Rules?
Yes. No matter which gun you are shooting, be it firearm, pellet gun, or BB gun, and some others that we have not mentioned, you need to be safety conscious. Remember how we talked about foot pounds of energy? If only one foot pound is necessary to break human skin, and most airguns at least exceed that, an accident with any airgun can result in an injury.
Rules for being safe with guns of all kinds include always treating a gun like it is cocked and loaded, even if you are positive that you cleared the chamber last night, there may be a detail you forgot that may lead to an accident.
Never point the gun at anything that you are not willing to damage, even things behind your target. If you miss your target, you could accidentally shoot Old Man Joe’s garden up, and no one wants that. Always keep your finger off of the trigger until you are ready to fire, using the safety, but never depending on it one hundred percent. Additionally, don’t load your gun until you are ready to shoot.
Obviously, a normal firearm will do much more damage than an airgun, generally speaking, but no injury that could be caused by an airgun or a firearm is worth the risk.