So many things are open to interpretation. A closed fist is one of them. If a person holds out their fist in front of them with a bent elbow and a stern face then it could mean “I’m gonna punch you!” if it is raised straight up in the air it could be a symbol of solidarity between civil rights groups. These are very different connotations for the same thing, but the consequences are not drastic. This is just body language, it is not harmful, though if may be offensive to some.
How about a knife? If you know any sailors or fisherman then you may have seen any thing from a pocket knife to a five or six inch blade that is kept in a sheath at the hip but it is far from a sword. If you are on a fishing boat and your partner pulls out a knife you don’t really think to much of it. But if you happen to be in a dark alley and you meet an unknown figure with the same knife already drawn it may be cause for concern.
When we look at definitions of objects we see that a weapon is something that is designed with the intent to do harm and one of the examples Merriam Webster gives is the knife. A tool is defined as a handheld device used to accomplish a task. There are of course other definitions for both but these are the most relevant. You can readily find different tools for different purposes across online shops and review sites like BestOfMachinery. Not so much with weapons which you cannot readily get access to without restrictions. The basic difference in these definitions is that a weapon is designed with the “intent” to do harm. But how do you know what something was designed to do?
There is a whole class of objects called improvised weapons, these are objects that were not initially designed to be harmful but have been modified or used in a violent way. Someone could say that a baseball bat is most certainly a weapon, it is an object designed to hit things, hard. But modern baseball bats are designed to be good at hitting baseballs not people. The fact they are commonly used as weapons does not inherently make them it weapon.
Improvised weapons are a tricky case because they are often made from basic items we do not usually associate with violent. Think of a can of gas, it is a a fuel for fire, it is powerful sure, but it is designed to go into engines. When you put it in a molotov cocktail though, it becomes weaponized. The same can be said for nearly all of our advancements starting with fire, all the way to a computer. There are countless examples of tools, that have been used as weapons, like dynamite and machetes which are already dangerous but not exactly weapons.
Still there are objects that require greater modification to become dangerous. We’ve heard stories about prison weapons, shanks that were made from tooth brushes and deconstructed shaving razors. In these places the access to items that have the potential to be conveniently weaponized are under controlled use. A prison inmate, can not simply pick up a nail outside of the work shop and most often those items are checked out by name and serial number.This is because the prison culture is thought to be more violent than society at large so the risk of conflict and decision to make violent use of things is thought to be higher. We must acknowledge that all of the prison inmate are from society at large. Is it possible that the culture of violence in prison is perpetuated or even catalyzed by the prison institution itself?
The same is true with actual weapons in the military, even with the training to properly use these weapons military servicemen keep their weapons under lock and key when they are not training or in combat.We control use by licensing, and with and permits, but one of the deadliest objects in our society is also the most common. The automobile.
If we are describing a weapon as something designed with the intent to do harm, and a tool as something used to aid in a task, is there a point where something is too efficient. You will find the fastest road in America is between Austin and San Antonio, Texas. You can legally drive 85 miles per hour on a 40 mile stretch. That is pretty quick but still we have production model cars that top 200 mph and the average top speed on a consumer vehicle is over 110 miles per hour. If there is no legal or practical use for cars to be driven at that speed, what other design motives are propelling engineers to create such unnecessarily dangerous machines?
If design intent is unknown, what class does an item default to. It could be said that the rock was the first tool, and first weapon as well. But rocks were not designed by anyone, their purpose has been defined by their use. The implications of this idea stretch deep into design and human behavior and we should be thinking about both to answer this question.