In a case published on October 19, 2016, the Minnesota Supreme Court decided an issue long debated in Minnesota Courts: Is a BB gun a firearm under Minnesota Criminal Law. The issue was presented when the State charged Mr. Haywood with violating Minn. Stat. § 609.165, subd.1b, which criminalizes the possession of a firearm by an ineligible person. The Court’s analysis is also relevant to any case in which an individual is charged with possession or use of a firearm when the term “firearm” is not specifically defined by statute.

In the case, State v. Haywood, No. A14-1792, 2016 WL 6127735 (Minn. Oct. 19, 2016), the defendant, Mr. Haywood, previously had been convicted of crime of violence and subsequently was found to have a BB gun in his possession. The BB gun Mr. Haywood had in his possession fired .177 inch projectiles and was powered not by gunpowder or other explosion, but rather by compressed air. This was a standard BB gun: the type that can be purchased at Wal-Mart or any other sporting goods store. Importantly, in Minnesota, no permit or background check is required to purchase this type of BB gun. He was charged with violating §, subd. 1(b) that states:

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.

Mr. Haywood’s attorney argued that not only is a BB gun not a firearm under Minn. Stat. § 609.165 (2014) subd. 1(b), but that the statute did not provide adequate notice to those whose convictions made it illegal for them to possess a BB gun. State v. Haywood, No. A14-1792, 2016 WL 6127735, at *1 (Minn. Oct. 19, 2016). This argument failed at the District Court level and following a Jury Trial, Mr. Haywood was found guilty of violating the law and sentenced to 60 months, 5 years, in prison.  Mr. Haywood appealed his conviction and the Minnesota Court of Appeals upheld the decision of the District Court (see State v. Haywood, 869 N.W.2d 902, 908 (Minn. Ct. App. 2015), review granted (Dec. 15, 2015), rev'd, No. A14-1792, 2016 WL 6127735 (Minn. Oct. 19, 2016)). Mr. Haywood appealed again and the Minnesota Supreme Court reversed the lower court’s decision and held that a BB gun is not a firearm for purposes of the statute.

The Supreme Court began by pointing out that the term “firearm” is not defined in either Minn. Stat. § 609.165 or in the definition section of the criminal code. State v. Haywood, No. A14-1792, 2016 WL 6127735, *2 (Minn. Oct. 19, 2016). The Court then accounted that it would look to the plain meaning of the word. Id at *4. Universally, the definition of “firearm” includes an element of “explosive force” used to discharge a propellant. Based on the common definition of the word, the Court held that because the word firearm means, a gun that uses explosive force, a BB gun that uses only compressed air could not be categorized as a firearm. Id. Because he was not in possession of a firearm, Mr. Haywood did not violate the statute.

This holding is in contrast to the Court’s previous holding in State v. Seifert, 256 N.W.2d 87 (Minn. 1977), which established that the use of compressed gas rather than gunpowder did not categorically exclude BB guns from the definition of “firearm” under Minnesota Stat. § 609.02 subd. 6. The Court differentiated its ruling in Siefert by stating that in in Siefert, the term “firearm” was situated within a much broader category of “dangerous weapons.” The statutory definition of “dangerous weapons” included, “any firearm, whether loaded or unloaded, or any device designed as a weapon and capable of producing death or great bodily harm.” Id. at 87-88. In Haywood, the statute provided no context or definition of the term “firearm.”

In a case decided less than a month after Haywood, the Minnesota Court of Appeals, in State v. Lue Yang, No. A15-2061, 2016 WL 6670680 (Minn. Ct. App. Nov. 14, 2016), reversed the conviction of a man found to have violated Minn. Stat. § 624.713 subd. 1 (2), which like the statute in Haywood criminalizes the possession of a firearm by an individual who has previously been convicted of a crime of violence. In Yang, the Court expanded the ruling in Haywood and stated that the definition and analysis in Haywood should be applied to § 624.713 subd. 1 (2). The Court again found that a BB gun is not a firearm for purposes of Minnesota Law.

In any criminal case, it is vitally important to understand what the charges are, and to understand the statute’s meaning and definitions. If you or someone you know is charged with an offense relating to a firearm, contact Wilson Law Group for your free consultation.