The Definition of "Weapon of Mass Destruction"

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The 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


                  (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

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

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, Ohio State University Professor John Mueller commented to


"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 weapon 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 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

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


Prosecutions based on this unreasonable definition:

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CRYPTO-GRAM is written by Bruce Schneier. Schneier is the author of the

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and "Applied Cryptography," and an inventor of the Blowfish, Twofish,

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