What is considered a firearm for MN ineligible in possession offenses?

Minnesota law prohibits certain people from possessing firearms or ammunition. If convicted of being ineligible in possession of a firearm, it subjects the person to a mandatory minimum prison sentence according to the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines. Therefore, it is crucially important to not only know who is ineligible to possess firearms or ammunition, but also to know what is considered a firearm or ammunition.

Recently, the Minnesota Supreme Court evaluated whether a distress flare launcher is considered a firearm in State v. Glover. You know, those flare guns that people use to shoot in the sky when they are stranded on a deserted island in hopes that the airplane flying thousands of feet above them will see it? Yeah, those.

Believe it or not, the prosecution charged someone with ineligible in possession of a firearm while possessing a distress flare launcher in Glover. The underlying offense was not even violent. It was burglary, a theft from a retail store of items totaling less than $1,000. Upon finding the suspect the officers located the flare gun from his pocket. Because the suspect had previously been adjudicated delinquent of a “crime of violence”, then he was prohibited from possessing a firearm. To which, the prosecution believed he should be charged with ineligible in possession of a firearm and face a mandatory minimum prison sentence.

Thankfully, the Minnesota Supreme Court determined that the term “firearm” should be limited to weapons. That is, objects designed for attack or defense, which a flare launcher designed for use in times of distress is not so designed. When the case was at the Minnesota Court of Appeals, it decided that a flare launcher could qualify as a firearm if it was used, or was intended to be used, as a weapon. The Minnesota Supreme Court determined that was erroneous because “use or intended to use” is not included in the statute. Therefore, according to the plain text of the statute, you cannot transform an object into a weapon by its situational use. The Court concluded by reasoning that the adding different devices into the statutory definition is something that is best left to the legislature.

In many cases the question about whether an object is considered a firearm under Minnesota law, is obvious. Guns that shoot bullets is the routine ineligible in possession of a firearm fact pattern. Generally, only when devices fall into these gray areas about whether the device is a firearm is where the dispute occurs. The Minnesota Supreme Court in this case limited firearms to weapons that are designed for attack or defense. In State v. Haywood, the court examined whether an air-powered BB gun fit the definition of a firearm. The court determined it was not a firearm for purposes of the ineligible in possession statute, because it used compressed air and not gunpowder or any other explosive force. At that time, the court did not decide that the device had to be a weapon to fit the definition of a firearm like it did in this case.

Robert H. Ambrose is a criminal defense attorney and DWI lawyer in Minnesota. Super Lawyers named him a Rising Star for the past five years; and the National Trial Lawyer’s Organization named him a Top 40 Under 40 Trial Lawyer the past seven years. He is also an adjunct professor at the University of Minnesota Law School. Assault Attorney Woodbury MN; Criminal Defense Attorney Woodbury MN; and Assault Lawyer MN.

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