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When is a gun not a gun? That's the question in Pennsylvania

Should you be sentenced under Pennsylvania's mandatory firearms sentencing laws for possession of a firearm if that gun isn't actually working? In Pennsylvania, the answer appears to be "yes."

An Associated Press story in July recounted the story of a 43-year-old woman who, while pleading guilty to drug-related charges in Clearfield County, received a five-year minimum mandatory sentence because police recovered a .357 magnum firearm under her bed.

The county judge delivered this decision even though the woman's gun lacked a firing pin, meaning that she couldn't have fired it even if she wanted to.

This summer, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court supported the earlier judge's decision, ruling unanimously that a firearm does not have to be in working condition to qualify a suspect for Pennsylvania's mandatory sentencing laws.

The ruling adds some clarity to a case that had been rather confusing. The county judge that had sentenced the suspect to five years of prison time initially actually changed his ruling later, when he granted the defense team's motion to lower the suspect's sentence because the gun lacked a firing pin. The county judge at this time lowered the suspect's prison sentence to nine months plus nine years of probation.

The state's Supreme Court heard the case after prosecutors appealed the lowering of the sentence. Prosecutors argued, back in 2009, that the suspect should face the state's mandatory minimum sentence even though the gun she possessed was not in working condition.

What's clear now is that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court believes that illegally possessing any firearm, even if it can't actually fire, can qualify suspects for Pennsylvania's minimum mandatory sentencing laws.

Source: The Daily Record, "Inoperable gun still a gun under Pennsylvania law," 20 July 2011

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