Seventh Circuit Criminal Case of the Week: When Is a Firearm “Automatic”?

David Olofson loaned his Colt AR-15 rifle to Robert Kiernicki on several occasions.  On one occasion, Kiernicki attracted some unwanted attention at the firing range when the gun produced three- and four-round bursts with each trigger pull.  A complaint to the police resulted in an investigation that traced the weapon back to Olofson, who was charged in due course with knowingly transferring a machinegun in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(o).  A jury convicted Olofson of this crime, and the judge imposed a sentence of thirty months in prison.

Olofson’s appeal centered on the jury instructions, specifically, the trial judge’s definition of “machinegun” as follows: “any weapon which shoots . . . automatically more than one shot, without manual reloading, by a single function of the trigger.”  Although this language came directly from the statutory definition of “machinegun,” Olofson argued that the judge should have further clarified what the term “automatically” meant based on Staples v. United States, 511 U.S. 600 (1994), in which the Supreme Court defined an automatic weapon this way: “[O]nce its trigger is depressed, the weapon will automatically continue to fire until its trigger is released or the ammunition is exhausted.”  Such a definition might have saved Olofson, for some of the evidence indicated that his gun jammed after shooting just three or four rounds — even if the “trigger [was not] released or the ammunition . . . exhausted.”

Olofson, however, was pretty clearly trying to give more weight to the Staples language than it could reasonably bear, and the Seventh Circuit held as much.

More specifically, in United States v. Olofson (No. 08-2294), the court (per Judge Manion) observed that the definition of “automatic” was not even at issue in Staples; the Supreme Court was merely “providing a glossary for terms frequently appearing in the opinion.”  And it is hard to see why the law should distinguish categorically between guns that fire continuously until the ammunition is exhausted and guns that fire continuously until jamming (which might be just short of the point at which the ammunition is exhausted).  In any event, as the Seventh Circuit indicated, there is nothing in the plain meaning of “automatically” that would seem to support such a distinction.  Indeed, the clarity of this statutory language rendered any further definition of the term unnecessary in the jury instructions.

In addition to Olofson, the court decided two other criminal cases last week:

  • United States v. Rosenbohm (No. 08-2620) (affirming sentence of life without parole for repeat sex offender under 18 U.S.C. § 3559(e)(1)).
  • United States v. Perez (Nos. 07-3947 & 08-2481) (vacating sentence modified after seven-day time limit and reinstating original sentence).

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Sean Samis

    I doubt the Court in Staples was excluding malfunctioning automatic weapons from its definition; a jam is simply a malfunction.

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