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Missing pieces? Still a firearm

Court of Appeals affirms unusual weapons conviction

A firearm is a firearm is a firearm — even if it’s not assembled, according to a recent decision by the Minnesota Court of Appeals.

A Mille Lacs County man, Corey Lynden Stone, was charged with two counts of unlawful possession of a firearm after a search of a vehicle he’d been in turned up a backpack containing parts for an unassembled shotgun.

At trial, one of the investigators who arrested Stone, Michael Dieter, testified that he and colleague Bradley Gadbois were “driving past a known drug house” and observed a car and a minivan parked near the residence.

Dieter and Gadbois approached the minivan, and the latter investigator spoke to the driver. Gadbois became suspicious based on the driver’s behavior, and in searching the vehicle found a backpack of the type that customarily comes with a detachable, smaller “day pack,” which was missing.

Dieter searched the backpack and found an unassembled shotgun with two barrels, along with a prescription box and a paystub, both made out to Stone. The driver told Dieter that the backpack belonged to Stone, who was not present.

Later that day, police found Stone at a nearby park, where he was carrying the day pack that had been detached from the hiking backpack. It contained the unassembled shotgun parts missing from the larger backpack. Stone said that he had previously been convicted of a violent crime and was therefore ineligible to possess a firearm, which was why the weapon was unassembled. Dieter later spoke to the minivan driver, who told him that Stone had borrowed his van and left the backpack in the vehicle.

A Bureau of Criminal Apprehension report submitted as evidence at trial stated that the BCA received the shotgun “disassembled” and that “the stock bolt and stock bolt washer… were not present.” The BCA report further said that the missing parts were taken from “a reference firearm” and were used to assemble the stock to the receiver. The shotgun was test fired and found to be working.

Stone’s attorneys argued that the evidence permitted a reasonable inference that the minivan driver put the gun in the backpack. The Mille Lacs County district court denied a motion to that effect, and after a jury verdict of guilty, convicted Stone of unlawful possession of a firearm, with a prison sentence of 39 months.

Stone appealed his conviction, saying primarily that an unassembled shotgun “lacking a stock bolt and stock bolt washer is not a firearm” and that the evidence was insufficient to prove that he possessed it.

Stone was convicted under Minn. Stat. § 609.165, subd. 1b(a). But the term “firearm” is not defined there, nor does the criminal code provide a general definition. The term, however, has been defined and interpreted in case law, and that’s where the appellate court focused its attention.

In 2018, the Minnesota Supreme Court defined “firearm” as “an instrument designed for attack or defense that expels a projectile by the action or force of gunpowder, combustion, or some other explosive force.” Absent precedential authority addressing unassembled firearms, the court pointed to case law that does address inoperable firearms. In LaMere v. State, the state supreme court held that a firearm that was temporarily inoperable because of a mechanical defect was nonetheless a “firearm” for purposes of Minn. Stat. § 609.02, subd. 6, which defines the term “dangerous weapon” to include “any firearm.”

Later, in Gerdes v. State, the high court held that for purposes of a conviction for possession of a short-barreled shotgun under Minn. Stat. § 609.67, subd. 2, “the operability of the weapon at the time of possession is immaterial.” A handful of other appellate and supreme court decisions came to similar conclusions.

In affirming the lower court, the Court of Appeals didn’t buy Stone’s argument that an incomplete firearm that cannot be assembled “either for purposes of brandishing as a threat or to fire simply is not a firearm.”

“That argument suggests that a constellation of firearm parts can never be assembled into a firearm if one or more of its parts is missing,” wrote judge Michelle Larkin in her opinion. “As this case demonstrates, it may be possible to obtain any missing part necessary to assemble a firearm. And as caselaw makes clear, it is not necessary that the assembly results in an operational firearm.”

The court’s decision elicited social-media vitriol from gun-rights advocates, who maintained that it could be interpreted to mean that any collection of firearm parts could theoretically be called a firearm. But an executive with the pro-Second Amendment Minnesota Gun Caucus pointed out on Twitter that a broken shotgun missing two non-critical parts is still a firearm according to the law.

Larkin wrote that it was undisputed that the BCA was able to assemble the shotgun components using a stock bolt and a stock bolt washer from another firearm. “Thus, the evidence was sufficient to prove that the unassembled shotgun parts in this case constituted a firearm within the meaning of (Minnesota statute).”

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