Minnesotans barred from possessing firearms can still be convicted of a felony if caught with disassembled or incomplete gun parts, the state's high court ruled Wednesday.
In issuing that decision, the Minnesota Supreme Court, in a 4-3 vote, upheld the 2021 felon in possession conviction of a 38-year-old Onamia man charged after Mille Lacs County investigators found pieces of a shotgun in his backpack a year earlier.
At issue was whether a set of incomplete, disassembled gun parts met the state's definition of a firearm. Writing the Supreme Court's majority opinion, Justice Margaret Chutich likened the shotgun parts to a clarinet, a musical instrument that she pointed out is often taken apart for transport.
"Upon viewing the unassembled clarinet parts in their case, a reasonable person would surely still consider the unassembled clarinet to be a musical instrument," Chutich wrote, later adding: "The clarinet may even be missing an essential part — such as a reed — and could still be properly considered a musical instrument because it did not lose its design ...The same holds true when a person convicted of a crime of violence possesses the integral parts unique to a firearm in an unassembled state in the same container, even though a part is missing."
Jurors — and now both appellate courts in Minnesota — sided with the prosecutors who charged Corey Lynden Stone in 2020. The state's case turned on the argument that incomplete components of a gun still met the state's definition of a firearm and thus were illegal to possess by someone previously convicted of certain crimes.
Investigators searching a van for drugs found pieces of a Mossberg 500C 20-gauge shotgun in a backpack belonging to Stone. They retrieved a shortened stock, shotgun receiver, two shotgun barrels (one full length and one sawed off) and the piece of a sawed-off barrel.
But the bag did not contain the gun's stock bolt or a stock bolt washer. A forensic scientist at the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) was however able to use a bolt and washer from a similar firearm at the BCA's reference library to fully assemble and successfully fire the shotgun.
Stone was barred from possessing a firearm based on prior convictions for domestic assault, violating a no-contact order, failing to appear in court, fleeing police in a vehicle and motor vehicle theft. He had three active warrants for failing to appear in court at the time of his 2020 arrest, according to court documents.
He is now serving a 39-month state prison sentence for his conviction on one count of possessing a firearm by an ineligible person. The state Court of Appeals affirmed that conviction last year, holding that a group of unassembled and incomplete shotgun parts is a "firearm" within the meaning of the statute, "so long as it is possible to assemble the parts into a firearm as defined by case law."
At trial, Investigator Michael Dieter testified that he believed the shotgun had to be disassembled to fit in Scott's backpack. Otherwise, he added, the firearm would have protruded from the top of the bag.
Stone's attorneys argued that jurors should've been instructed that the firearm was incomplete because of the missing stock bolt and washer. Jurors should have been "free to decide whether or not this particular firearm was a firearm because it was missing pieces," they argued.
Mille Lacs County Judge Mark Herzing declined to give the jury that instruction. Jurors were instead given the definition that a firearm was a device that "whether operable or inoperable, loaded or unloaded, designed to be used as a weapon from which can be expelled a projectile by the force of any explosion or force of combustion."
In appealing his conviction, Stone argued that unassembled and incomplete parts could not constitute a weapon or instrument. The parts in question, according to Stone, could not be assembled into a firearm to either brandish or fire.
Justices Paul Thissen, Lorie Skjerven Gildea and G. Barry Anderson dissented.
In a brief written dissent, Thissen disagreed that possessing an incomplete collection of firearm parts was the same as possessing a firearm under state law and said he would have reversed Stone's conviction.
"The statute prohibits possession of an object called a firearm — a weapon designed to be used for attack or defense," Thissen wrote. "The reason the Legislature prohibits persons who have been convicted of a crime of violence from possessing a firearm is because it is concerned that the person will use the firearm as a weapon and hurt someone. A person who has some of, but not all of, the parts of a firearm such that the firearm cannot be assembled sufficiently to be used as designed — as a weapon — does not possess a firearm."
On Wednesday, Assistant State Public Defender Eva Wailes — who represented Stone's appeal — expressed disappointment with the Supreme Court's findings.
"We agree with the dissent that it was a straightforward question with a simple answer — a person who possesses an incomplete group of firearm parts that cannot be assembled into a firearm does not possess a firearm," Wailes said. "It is our position that the Legislature, not the courts, should determine whether to include firearm parts in ineligible-person-in-possession statutes."