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Wednesday, June 19, 2024 | Back issues
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Felon’s Damaged Gun Raises Definition Issues

CHICAGO (CN) - The 7th Circuit explored the question of "what is a gun" in an opinion deciding the fate of a convicted felon caught in possession of a pistol.

Steven Dotson was arrested after he assaulted a woman and pointed a Hi-Point .380 caliber semi-automatic pistol at her, according to the criminal complaint. At the time, he had five previous felony convictions for burglary, strangulation, domestic battery and other crimes.

Dotson was convicted of being a felon in possession of a firearm and sentenced to 15 years in prison.

On appeal Dotson argued that the weapon he wielded was too badly damaged to be considered a gun.

An expert from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives testified that Dotson's gun was corroded and missing parts. It could not have fired at the time Dotson possessed it and would have taken a professional gunsmith one to two hours to repair.

Dotson's brief argued that, as a result of the damage, the "design has been so altered that the original purpose for which it was intended no longer exists."

A three-judge panel of the 7th Circuit shot down Dotson's arguments and affirmed the conviction Thursday.

The illustrated seven-page opinion begins with Judge Richard Posner outlining "two extreme positions" on how to interpret the "gun" definition.

Dotson took the first position, which holds that the statute no longer covers guns that have become so seriously inoperable as to require expertise to restore.

"The opposite position, which the government doesn't quite espouse but doesn't disclaim either, is once a gun always a gun: anything originally designed as a gun remains a gun no matter how dilapidated it becomes, how difficult to restore to operating condition," Posner wrote.

But the court identified several cases in the gray area that defeat both positions.

"What if the gun is so damaged that it can't be restored?" Posner asked. "What if it's just a heap of twisted metal barely even recognizable as having once been a gun?"

"Or suppose that what was once a gun has been converted to a nonweapon, a cigarette lighter for example," he added.

Posner, who has used photos of Bob Marley and ostriches in past opinions, included an image of a gun-shaped cigarette lighter.

"Would a felon who possessed such a lighter be a felon in possession of a firearm?" he asked. "Maybe he would if what the statute asked is whether the alleged weapon 'was designed ... to expel,' but it doesn't; it says 'is designed.' That implies the possibility of redesign."

The "once a gun, always a gun" stance is similarly problematic, Posner wrote, because it flirts with an interpretation of "is redesigned" that reads "was originally designed."

"Toy guns are not infrequently redesigned to be real guns ... and surely the government doesn't think that a felon who owns a gun that started life as a toy gun but now shoots real bullets can't be convicted of being a felon in possession," the ruling states.

In Dotson's case, the gun "neither was redesigned to be something other than a gun nor is so badly damaged that it can no longer be regarded as a weapon designed to fire bullets," Posner concluded.

"Designed to be a gun, never redesigned to be something else, not so dilapidated as to be beyond repair, the gun fits the statutory definition and the judgment must therefore be affirmed."

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