Florida Felon Gets Court’s OK on Antique Gun

     TALLAHASSEE (CN) — A convicted felon should not have been charged with possession of a firearm after he was found hunting with an antique muzzleloader, Florida’s highest court ruled.
     While the Sept. 22 ruling upheld a lower court’s decision to vacate the conviction, the Florida Supreme Court did not agree with its finding the state’s law regarding antique firearms unconstitutional.
     Christopher Weeks was arrested by a state Fish and Wildlife officer in the Blackwater Wildlife Management Area near Pensacola, Fla., on February 4, 2012, and charged with one count of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.
     Weeks eventually pleaded no contest to the charge, although he and several members of his family testified that their research indicated he was allowed to hunt with a gun that employed a “percussion cap ignition system … because it was a replica of an antique firearm.”
     The trial court sentenced Weeks to three years’ probation, but the First District Court of Florida eventually overturned the conviction.
     The statute in question was passed in 2012, and makes it illegal for a convicted felon to own or possess a firearm.
     However, the statute includes the following exception: “The term ‘firearm’ does not include an antique firearm unless the antique firearm is used in the commission of a crime.”
     In the statute, an “antique firearm” is defined as “any firearm manufactured in or before 1918 (including any matchlock, flintlock, percussion cap, or similar early type of ignition system) or replica thereof.”
     Although the weapon possessed by Weeks was fitted with a modern scope, the district court ruled “that ‘the firing or ignition mechanism of the firearm determines whether a firearm qualifies as an ‘antique firearm’ or a replica thereof.'”
     The district court also agreed with Weeks’s assertion that the statute is unconstitutionally vague, after it determined that a plain language definition of the term “replica” did not adequately delineate what type of firearm may be carried by a convicted felon.
     Florida Supreme Court Justice Barbara Pariente agreed that the dictionary definition of replica “does not favor one conclusion over another as to what constitutes a permissible replica of an antique firearm,” and pointed out that the rule of lenity compels the court to construe the term in favor of the defendant.
     “One reasonable construction of the term may lead to an interpretation that ‘replica’ means an exact copy in every respect,” she wrote. “Another reasonable construction of the term … is that section 790.001(1) emphasizes the ignition system as the distinctive feature of an ‘antique firearm,’ and therefore requires that the firearm possess a certain type of ignition system explicitly mentioned by the statute. In short, the statutory term ‘generate[s] differing reasonable constructions,’ which require application of the rule of lenity.”
     The “reasonable constructions” advanced by Justice Pariente in her opinion ultimately led her to overturn the lower court’s ruling that the statute — and specifically the exception for antique or replica firearms — is unconstitutionally vague.
     Justice R. Fred Lewis dissented from the majority, and wrote that because the rifle “featured a scope that was not found on weapons that were available in 1918 … such a firearm cannot constitute an antique firearm as defined by Florida law.”
     “A nonlegal dictionary defines ‘replica’ as ‘an exact copy in all details,'” he wrote. “Thus … plain language and common sense dictate that a replica should, at the very least, look like the original object. I would conclude that the addition of a modern scope to an otherwise-antique firearm removes this firearm from the exception provided for antique firearms by the Legislature.”

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