In the Unicode standard, this character is defined as a ‘pistol’. The Emojipedia definition describes the emoji as “a weapon that has potential to cause great harm”.
With previous iOS versions, Apple presented this emoji as an actual gunmetal pistol. With iOS 10, they’ve changed it to a green toy water gun. I don’t like how they have handled this. This has nothing to do with the associated political implications of free speech and everything to do with the way Apple has implemented this technically.
My personal qualm is that Apple has distorted the integrity of the Emoji language by replacing the glyph for a character which has a very different meaning. A toy water gun depicts very different intentions than a real gun. The 🔫 emoji now has an ambiguous meaning because it represents different objects across devices and operating systems.
On iOS 10 devices, the emoji in the previous paragraph looks like a water gun. On iOS 9 or on my OS X El Capitan Mac (on which I am typing this post) it looks like a serious weapon — a handgun. By the way, VoiceOver will describe that character as a ‘pistol’ on all devices, including iOS 10.
I tried to show a more sinister example on Twitter where the meaning of a message can now be misconstrued if the recipient and sender are not using the same OS.
Rather than recycle the same character code point, here’s what I think Apple should have done. Remove the pistol emoji from Apple’s keyboard completely. Lobby the Unicode consortium to add a new emoji that depicts a ‘water pistol toy’ and include that in the keyboard.
This handling is better because it does not affect usage of the handgun emoji on other clients, Apple would just be disabling the ability to write it on its systems. The water gun emoji would then be true to itself with a unique code, a consistent depiction of a toy water pistol across all platforms that support the latest Unicode standard and the correct labelling for VoiceOver accessibility.
Assuming Apple followed my suggestion, there’s still a question about how to display a message that includes a handgun emoji sent from someone else. Apple could let the symbol display, meaning iOS 10 would allow users to read, but not write, the gun emoji. Alternatively, it could treat the handgun as an unknown character and display the typical ‘character unknown’ black box placeholder glyph. I think either is fine, although the latter makes a more forceful statement on society.