MN Supreme Court: BB guns are not a firearm

The Minnesota Supreme Court today settled a long-running dispute over whether a BB gun is a firearm under Minnesota’s weapons laws.

It’s not, the court ruled, overturning a ruling from the Minnesota Court of Appeals, and reversing the conviction of a Ramsey County man.

The state’s high court clarified this law which regulates firearms but doesn’t define what a firearm is.

Any person who has been convicted of a crime of violence, as defined in section 624.712, subdivision 5, and who ships, transports, possesses, or receives a firearm, commits a felony and may be sentenced to imprisonment for not more than 15 years or to payment of a fine of not more than $30,000, or both.

Court decisions over the years have literally begged the Minnesota Legislature to clarify the issue. It has not.

David Heywood, who has a previous felony conviction, was sentenced in Ramsey County District Court to five years in prison after he was stopped by St. Paul police in January 2013 and arrested for violating a no-contact order. The BB gun was found in the glove box and state law bars a felon from possessing a firearm.

When the Court of Appeals affirmed his conviction, Judge Michelle Ann Larkin said that even though the Legislature failed to define what constitutes a firearm, previous court decisions effectively had, thus denying Heywood’s contention that the law is unconstitutionally vague.

“The plain and ordinary meaning of the word ‘firearm’ includes only devices that require explosive force,” Judge Natalie Hudson wrote for the majority in today’s opinion. Heywood’s BB gun was air powered.

In the absence of a statutory definition, we look to dictionary definitions to determine the plain meaning of words. Here, the plain and ordinary meaning of the word “firearm” includes only devices that require explosive force. Merriam-Webster defines firearm as a “weapon from which a shot is discharged by gunpowder.” Webster’s defines firearm as “a small arms weapon, as a rifle or pistol, from which a projectile is fired by gun-powder.”

The American Heritage Dictionary defines firearm as “[a] weapon, especially a pistol or rifle, capable of firing a projectile and using an explosive charge as a propellant.” Black’s Law Dictionary defines firearm as “[a] weapon that expels a projectile (such as a bullet or pellets) by the combustion of gunpowder or other explosive.”

In sum, dictionaries consistently define “firearm” as including only weapons that use explosive force.

Hudson said that since the Minnesota Supreme Court included BB guns as firearms in a decision nearly 40 years ago, the Legislature has twice adopted other laws that differentiate BB guns from firearms.

“We do not minimize the concerns of the State… that, regardless of the means of propulsion, a BB gun is capable of producing death or great bodily harm,” Hudson wrote in her opinion, which, again, asked the Legislature to settle the question. “But that is arguably true of nail guns and other devices that use compressed air, as well. Even so, the question of how to define a ‘firearm’ is best left to the Legislature.”