Disassembled, incomplete gun can still be considered firearm by law, Minnesota high court says
A gun that’s taken apart and missing pieces can still be considered a firearm under state law, Minnesota’s highest court says.
In an opinion released Wednesday, the Minnesota Supreme Court upheld a precedential ruling by the state’s appellate court that provides some more clarity on what can be considered a firearm.
The case centered around an Onamia man who was charged with unlawful gun possession after law enforcement officers found parts of an unassembled shotgun inside the man’s backpack in August 2020. Because the man had previously been convicted of a crime of violence, he wasn’t able to legally possess a firearm and was later convicted of a firearm violation for possession of the parts.
The man appealed and argued that the unassembled gun — which also was missing a bolt and washer — shouldn’t have been considered a firearm under state law because the gun was disassembled, incomplete and couldn’t have been brandished as a weapon or fired in their current state.
Back in November, the Minnesota Court of Appeals upheld the man’s conviction, determining a group of gun parts can still be a firearm under state law as long as the parts can be assembled into a gun — particularly in this case, where a firearm violation by a person convicted of violence isn’t able to even possess a firearm, let alone use one.
In a 4-3 decision, the Minnesota Supreme Court agreed with the Court of Appeals.
Court documents note that investigators recognized the gun parts found in the backpack were from a 20-gauge shotgun and — using a bolt and washer from a similar gun — were able to assemble it and found it functional through a test fire.
The Supreme Court justices determined that a firearm is “ordinarily understood to be an instrument designed for attack or defense” and shoots a projectile through explosive force. That means it couldn’t be applied to a flare gun, for example, because it’s designed as an emergency alert instrument. However, since the shotgun parts met that definition.
Additionally, the justices wrote that even though the parts were missing two pieces to be fully assembled into a functional shotgun, the missing parts didn’t change the design of the firearm or make it something that wasn’t designed for attack or defense. They compared it to a clarinet, which is often disassembled for transport or storage but is still reasonably considered a clarinet when unassembled, even if it’s missing a part like the reed. And since simple possession of a gun is a violation for a person convicted of a crime of violence, the functionality isn’t relevant to whether or not it’s a firearm, the justices wrote.
The court also highlighted a similar opinion from the Michigan Supreme Court, in which those justices recognized that requiring a gun to be fully complete and functional to be considered a firearm would allow convicted felons to legally sell, buy and have guns as long as the firing pins were removed temporarily. The Minnesota Supreme Court wrote that a completeness requirement “would thwart the Legislature’s clear purpose in enacting the sweeping lifetime provision.”
Ultimately, the justices wrote that the jury was properly allowed to decide whether the gun parts had been changed so much or were so incomplete in that they no longer constituted a firearm, but they determined the parts did meet the definition of a firearm and the evidence was sufficient to reach that determination.
However, the decision still leaves some gray areas. For example, the justices noted that a gun “could be so damaged, incomplete, or altered that it has completely lost its characteristics of a weapon designed to fire a projectile,” and a toy gun that becomes able to shoot real bullets could be considered a real firearm.
The three dissenting justices, including Chief Justice Lorie Gildea, wrote that they don’t believe a person who is missing parts of a gun could assemble them to be a weapon and, therefore, don’t believe the man’s conviction should’ve been upheld.