It is a crime to threaten someone with physical harm if you seem to have the means and intent to cause the threatened harm. That crime is called assault.
Assault is generally defined as a threat that puts someone in fear of imminent harm, although state statutes do vary and assault is a particularly confusing crime because the term is sometimes used to refer to the related crime of battery as well. Pointing a gun at a person is likely to threaten their sense of safety and can certainly give the impression of intent to harm, so people are charged with assault for it.
Prince George Policeman's Assault
A fine example of someone who was charged with assault for pointing a gun is the story of a police officer in Prince George County, Maryland, convicted last month of first- and second-degree assault, among other crimes. The officer, Jenchesky Santiago, was caught on film pointing a gun to the head of William Cunningham, shouting, ordering him into a car, and making a very convincing case that he intended to use his weapon.
Cunningham and his friends were confronted by the officer because they were illegally parked. In light of their alleged infraction, which was not at all severe, the officer's response was completely disproportionate and ultimately deemed criminal. Under Maryland law, severe assault also refers to battery, which means there was -- beyond the threat -- also an unwanted touching.
Clearing up the Confusion
Assault is a little bit confusing as crimes go, and that is in part because some states use the terms assault and battery interchangeably. Add to that the fact that the terms are misused on television, making the general understanding murkier.
Technically speaking, a battery is an extension of an assault. So, in the assault an unwanted touching is threatened by someone who seems able and willing to commit that touching. Battery is what happens when the person makes good on the threat and actually commits an unwanted touching.
But not every threat rises to the level of assault, and state statutes vary in the details, so look up your local laws to ensure you understand the precise elements that go into assault in your state. And just to be safe, don't point guns at anyone.
Charged With a Crime?
If you are charged with assault, battery, or any other crime, speak to a lawyer immediately. Do not delay. Get help.