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Court of Appeals clarifies firearm law

The Virginia Court of Appeals removed any doubt today that an object that looks like a firearm and is used to threaten a victim is in fact a firearm, even if the firearm is inoperable.

The firearm in this case, Startin v. Commonwealth, was a replica of a .45-caliber pistol manufactured by the Franklin Mint that had all the attributes of a firearm except that it “did not include a firing pin or other mechanical device necessary to fire a projectile by explosion.” The defendant used it to rob pharmacists of Oxycontin.

Cases from the court of appeals and the Supreme Court of Virginia generally have held that an object that looks like a firearm and is used to threaten a victim is a firearm under Virginia Code §18.2-53.1, the en banc court noted.

However, a 1995 case, Sprouse v. Commonwealth, 19 Va. App.548, held that an object the victim reasonably believed to be a firearm could never constitute a firearm under Code §18.2-53.1 unless it was in fact a firearm.

The court of appeals overruled Sprouse because the case is inconsistent with other decisions holding that that the purpose of the statute “is to proscribe the use of any instrument that reasonably produces fear of physical harm to an individual.”
By Alan Cooper

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