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.”

  • Gary F
    • Powered by an explosive .22 caliber cartridge? I’d say don’t leave it in your glove box if you’ve got an order of protection against you, you’re violating the order, and you’re a felon.

      But I suppose you’ll have to test it in the courts since it’s clear the Legislature wants no part of this.

      • DaveBooth1963

        In the UK where I grew up air-powered rifles and pistols are ok, even with the restrictive rules on firearm ownership over there, but they have a rule about max muzzle energy, I could walk into cabela or joes here and buy an air-powered pellet gun that would be considered a class 1 firearm under UK law because it has a muzzle energy greater than 12 ft/lbs.

    • Rob

      Nice try. It’s powered by an explosive charge, so connect the dots.

      • jon

        work internet won’t let me watch Gary’s video…. but..
        my car is also powered by an explosive charge (fully automatic rapid fire, up to 12,000 explosions per minute (6,000 rpm, divide by 2 for a 4 cycle engine, times 4 cylinders) that’s something like 3 times the rate of the phalanx missile defense systems on warships…

        Yet I doubt anyone would consider it a firearm.

        I think the projectile part is an important factor in the decision, if there is a projectile fired, then it’s probably a firearm, if there is not, then it’s just a plain old weapon, or explosive device.

        • // I doubt anyone would consider it a firearm.

          But, Hudson brought up the issue of tools so the question isn’t out of line with the issue she raised.

          • jon

            I think the definition of a firearm laid out above in the quotes of dictionaries has two criteria, (1) fires a projectile (2) by explosive force.

            BB guns meet the first criteria but not the second, my car meets the second, but not the first…

            (I’m really hoping that when I am able to watch Gary’s Video it shows what I would expect for a powered hammer and there is no projectile fired)

          • The video is just a PH being used to attach a metal threshold to a concrete floor.

          • CHS

            You can shoot the nails out of a power hammer like this one (or one of the normal air powered ones) by manually pressing in the safety that prevents you from firing a nail unless you’re on a hard surface. They will go a fair ways…

          • Gary F

            You’ve tried it?

          • CHS

            I’ve never intentionally done it with a power hammer or ram-set, but I have shot a few nails through the air with a pneumatic framing nailer. If you pulled the collar down on the power hammer all the way in I’m sure it would go bang when you pulled the trigger.

    • Dan

      I don’t know, but now I’m trying to think of projects around the house that could justify buying one.

      • Gary F

        Nailing studs to concrete. Which means basement remodel, which may or may not be good for your marriage.

        A basic .22LR rifle or pistol would be more fun.

  • jon

    This is actually something that has bothered me for years.

    Thanks for posting this Bob.

  • Rob

    Good to know that from now on, a felon subject to a no-contact order can carry a propulsive weapon capable of putting someone’s eye out, but not run afoul of the firearms laws.

  • Kassie

    Does this mean my partner can shoot squirrels and rabbits (with a proper license, or course) in the backyard now? I’ve told him he can’t due to rules against discharging firearms in the city. I sure hope not.

    • I would check the ordinance/statute to be sure it doesn’t define firearms.

      • Gary F

        St Paul is currently overrun with rabbits. I will be looking into the details of this. But please don’t use a BB gun on a rabbit, it’s not a clean kill. They neighbors wouldn’t appreciate the blood trail in the snow just to find a rabbit slowly dying in the bushes.

        • Thomas Mercier

          A .22 with low velocity bullets carefully pointed should suffice and not scare the locals much.

          • CHS

            Problem with most of the low velocity stuff is that they are solids rather than hollow-point. They don’t fragment and ricochet a lot easier. I’ve had that happen a few times with my target rifle and the low velocity stuff.

        • CHS

          Overrun is an understatement. My dog gave up and made friends with a couple of the bigger ones. They don’t even bother running anymore, sometimes they even chase each other around the yard.

  • Jay Sieling

    This ruling makes tough work for the Legislature that they may continue to ignore. According to the Dictionary definitions used in the ruling, black powder muzzle loaded rifles and pistols would be firearms. But they are not classified as firearms – although still a weapon. They are not classified as firearms so hobbyists could build and use old flintlock’s in their garage without needing a Federal Firearms License. Even though the projectile is propelled by an explosive charge and the modern ones are as accurate as regular firearms. Wonder when this classification will be challenged/changed in courts – as the legislature seems to be unwilling to legislate.

    • // . Wonder when this classification will be challenged/changed in court

      As soon as a felon violates an order of protection with a musket, I imagine.

    • Laurie K.

      Actually the statute that the defendant in the MN Supreme Court Case was cited with would apply to a modern day muzzle loader. Per Minn. Stat. 624.712, subd. 3, the only muzzle loader that would be exempt is an “antique firearm” which includes any firearm with a matchlock, flintlock, percussion cap or similar type of of ignition system manufactured before 1899 or which is an exact replica. Also, in cases of person prohibited from owning a firearm due to a felony conviction, the antique firearm can only be owned for purposes of historical significance or value.