'Use' and the Supreme Court

Johanna Rubba jrubba at HARP.AIX.CALPOLY.EDU
Wed Nov 8 02:10:52 UTC 1995

Hello everyone,

Did anyone else catch the interesting NY Times article within the  past
week or so on the word 'use'? I found myself wondering how I would advise
the court if I were consulted as a linguist. (Although I dug and dug
through all my Times's of this past week, I can't relocate the article,
so the following is from memory.)

The question at issue was, what does it mean to  'use' a gun?
Apparently, someone had had their penalty increased in severity because
of the claim that they had 'used' a gun in committing a crime (a drug
deal, I think). The gun was in the trunk of the car; it was never taken
out or pointed at anyone; only the owner of the gun knew it was there,
not anyone s/he was interacting with. The argument was along the lines
that the perpetrator had gotten comfort and reassurance from the presence
of the gun, and therefore was more confident in going ahead with the crime.
Analogies were drawn to people who might say things like 'I keep a gun in
my nighttable drawer. I use it for protection' when, in fact, the person
may never have shot or brandished the gun at anyone.

The Supreme Court justices seemed to really struggle with this one.

So, what does it mean to 'use' a gun? Do we go with the prototype, and
try to defend that with some kind of empirical method of demonstrating
what the prototypical meaning is; do we allow the extended uses like the
gun in the drawer or in the trunk? And if so, where does 'use of a gun' end?

I'd be interested in knowing how other linguists would respond if asked
for expert help with this question ....

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Johanna Rubba   Assistant Professor, Linguistics              =
English Department, California Polytechnic State University   =
San Luis Obispo, CA 93407                                     =
Tel. (805)-756-0117  E-mail: jrubba at oboe.aix.calpoly.edu      =
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