On Wednesday, October 19th, 2016, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that the plain meaning of a “firearm” does not include a BB gun in State v. Haywood. This decision reverses Minnesota law dating back to 1977 that a BB gun is indeed a firearm.
David Haywood was driving in downtown St. Paul on January 1, 2013, when he was stopped by a St. Paul police officer and subsequently arrested for being in violation of a no-contact order. Following his arrest and an inventory search of his vehicle, officers found a BB gun inside the glove compartment. The BB gun, a Walther CP99 Compact pistol, fires projectiles using compressed air as a propellant. Mr. Haywood has a prior 2005 conviction for Felony Second Degree Sale of a Controlled Substance and was prohibited for life from possessing firearms under Minnesota and Federal law. Mr. Haywood was charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm, convicted at a jury trial, and then sentenced to 60 months in prison.
The court reasoned that when determining the plain and ordinary meaning of undefined words or phrases in a statute, courts should look to the dictionary definitions of those words and apply them in the context of the statute. The Minnesota criminal statutes do not specifically define the term “firearm.” Instead, Minnesota courts had previously relied on the game-and-fish laws that defined “firearm” as “any gun from which shot or a projectile is discharged by means of an explosive, gas, or compressed air.” The Court, for the first time however, turned to several dictionaries to determine the plain and ordinary meaning of the term “firearm.” Those definitions included: “devices that require explosive force;” “a weapon from which a shot is discharged by gunpowder;” “a small arms weapon, as a rifle or pistol, from which a projectile is fired by gun-powder;” “a weapon, especially a pistol or rifle, capable of firing a projectile and using an explosive charge as a propellant;” and “a weapon that expels a projectile (such as a bullet or pellets) by the combustion of gunpowder or other explosive.” Dictionaries consistently defined “firearm” as including only weapons that use explosive force. Because an air-powered BB gun does not fire bullets or use explosive force, it was ruled to not be a firearm.