Last week, the Florida Supreme Court issued an opinion clarifying the types of firearms convicted felons may possess. Section 790.23 of the Florida Statutes prohibits convicted felons from possessing firearms. However, the law also exempts any firearm manufactured before 1918, or replicas of pre-1918 firearms. Weeks v. State involved a case against a convicted felon who hunted with a .50 caliber muzzle-loaded rifle. Weeks’ rifle largely copied a pre-1918 firearm, but used a modern scope.
The gun in question was a gift from Weeks’ wife. She testified that she had researched the issue and determined that Weeks could use it without breaking the law. Weeks’ father, a retired law enforcement firearm instructor, also determined that Weeks could legally use the rifle. However, when Weeks took the rifle hunting with him, a Florida Fish and Wildlife officer arrested him.
The First District Court of Appeal found that the felon-in possession statute violated the constitution. It held that the definition of “replica” was unconstitutionally vague. In other words, it found that punishing Defendants for breaking the law was unfair, since the statute failed give a clear definition of “replica”.
Justice Pariente, writing on behalf of the Court, found the statute was not unconstitutionally vague. However, she still held the rifle was a replica antique. She found that the key to understanding the statute was a parenthetical list in the statute’s definition of antique firearm. The definition reads: “any firearm manufactured in or before 1918 (including any matchlock, flintlock, percussion cap, or similar early type of ignition system)”. Taking into account this list, the Court held that the defining feature of a replica firearm was its ignition system. Since the Defendant’s rifle used a percussion cap, the Court found it was a replica, notwithstanding the modern scope.
While Justice Pariente’s interpretation won the day, the Justices disagreed as to exactly how courts should construe the statute. Justice Canady came to the same conclusion, but argued that the firearm was a replica antique because “accessories” like scopes are not a part of the firearm. Justice Lewis came to a different conclusion, finding that the Black’s Law definition of a “replica” required the copy to be a “reasonably exact duplicate.” Therefore, according to Lewis, attaching a modern scope created a large enough difference to disqualify the firearm from the statutory exemption.
The Supreme Court’s decision last-week gives convicted felons some much-needed guidance as to what types of firearms they may possess. One aspect in the case that was never in dispute was that the firearm was far too cumbersome to be of any danger. The trial judge quipped “[Weeks] would be in a world of hurt if a bear was charging after him.” Given that the rifle generated three conflicting, well-reasoned legal opinions, one has to wonder why the State decided to prosecute Weeks. The evidence showed that he posed no threat to anyone and was merely trying to follow a very confusing law.