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Old April 3, 2014, 02:23 AM   #1
FrankenMauser
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Legal advice from Idaho AG: Consult a dictionary.

I recently sent a request to the Idaho Attorney General, for direction on finding definitions for firearms types in the Idaho state code. I searched for it on my own, but came up with nothing. So, I figured the AG's office might offer something useful.

I was wrong.

Their response was somewhat helpful, in clarifying that the definitions don't exist. But... I haven't yet decided if the closing sentence is insulting, or if they really have no idea what they're doing in the AG's office.




Now...
I did consult a dictionary for the definition of "rifle".
It said: "A gun fired from the shoulder, with spiral grooves cut in the barrel, to twist the bullet for greater accuracy."

So, if I follow the AG's advice of consulting a dictionary, does that mean a short barreled rifle is perfectly acceptable as far as the state is concerned? Or should I follow Federal definitions?.....

(I'm not going to ignore Federal regulations. I simply wanted to share the response I received.)

I have sent a request for clarification - if dictionary definitions are adequate in Idaho, or if Federal standards are the "plain, usual and ordinary" meaning.
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Old April 3, 2014, 02:35 AM   #2
JimmyR
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If it were me, and I recieved a letter like this, I would first pay more attention to the first sentence of the second paragraph:

Quote:
Originally Posted by Kriss Bivins Cloyd
There is no statutory definition of these firearms
With no State definitions, I would then assume the Federal definitions would be the best ones to follow.

As to the ending remark, I don't know that I would put much stock into the degree of sarcasm without knowing how you asked the question. Depending on how you asked, you may have come across as someone with little to no knowledge of firearms, and that may have been how she interpreted your request.
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Old April 3, 2014, 04:01 AM   #3
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When the legislative body does not set out a definition, courts often will refer to dictionaries when analyzing the language and meaning of a statute.

For example, http://www.michbar.org/publicpolicy/...tat_Interp.pdf

Quote:
An undefined term is given its plain and ordinary meaning.
(a) A "legal term of art" is given its peculiar legal meaning.
(b) Terms that have a unique legal meaning are given the definition found in a
lay dictionary, such as Random House Webster's College Dictionary.
Brackett v Focus Hope, Inc., 482 Mich 269, 275 (2008); MCL 8.3(a)
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Old April 3, 2014, 09:08 AM   #4
Spats McGee
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It's not that the AG's office doesn't know what it's doing. When interpreting a term used in a statute, the courts look first to see if the legislature has defined a term. If not, they go with the 'plain and ordinary meaning,' however that may be phrased in your particular state's case law.

As for the SBR, it may well be a "firearm" for purposes of State law, but it is also an SBR, for purposes of federal law. The two are not really mutually exclusive. IOW, you're wise not to ignore Federal law on those.

ETA: I've had to cite Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary as a source before.
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Old April 3, 2014, 12:04 PM   #5
kilimanjaro
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They're not being rude, you got good legal advice.

Absent a definition in the law itself, the courts have to look to other sources, they can't just make them up themselves.
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Old April 3, 2014, 12:09 PM   #6
FrankenMauser
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But, when we already have Federal definitions for almost every conceivable firearm variation, would the state of Idaho really consult a dictionary rather than the Federal definitions?
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Old April 3, 2014, 12:21 PM   #7
Spats McGee
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That would depend on why the State is looking for a definition. If it's a State-level crime (I'm thinking aggravated assault), it might just need an ordinary definition. If it's a question of violation of the federal transfer laws (18 USC 922), it would look at the federal definition of "firearm." If it's a question of illegal possession of an SBR, it's going to have to look at the NFA definition of "firearm." Sometimes the definition of a term is limited to a set number of statutes. Example: "For purposes of this chapter, a 'firearm' is defined as . . . " If I'm looking at a different chapter, that definition may or may not be useful.
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Old April 3, 2014, 03:16 PM   #8
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I am not convinced that "you may wish to consult a dictionary" constitutes legal advice. It was merely a suggestion to help with comprehension.
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Old April 3, 2014, 06:30 PM   #9
KyJim
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Quote:
I am not convinced that "you may wish to consult a dictionary" constitutes legal advice.
A.G. offices don't normally give legal advice to citizens. They may or may not give an opinion -- some states have statutes that allow A.G. offices to give opinions on matters of public importance under some circumstances. It is not binding on the courts and may not be persuasive, depending upon the circumstances. Here's the statute covering my state's A.G. opinions. http://ag.ky.gov/civil/opinions/Pages/default.aspx
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Old April 4, 2014, 10:42 AM   #10
44 AMP
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The problem is that we have been conditioned in schools to accept "the dictionary" as the authoritative source for both spelling and word definition. And while this does work for most things, it fails in two particulars.

The first, and it is openly stated (usually) in the preface is the fact that dictionary definitions reflect the definition(s) as found "in common usage".

And many of the ways words are defined "in common usage" are simply incorrect in technical usage.

Technical fields develop their own specialized vocabulary, using combination of very specific technical definitions for some common words, and unique terms created and defined in the field.

The second failing is that a valid definition (and possibly the one you are seeking) simply may not be in the general dictionary, particularly if the one you are seeking is from some specialzed field. Cars, Guns, computers, boats, airplanes, sports, there are too many to list.

A "sack" in football means one thing, a "sack" at WalMart means something else. (for example)

Another example is how words are used in casual conversation vs. their use & definition in court and in law. A "minute" in casual conversation can be an unspecified, short length of time. As in "wait a minute.." but in court, a minute = 60 seconds. The use of the word "minute" instead of "moment" could be an issue against your credibility, if the time referred to isn't 60 full seconds.

I realize things like this are splitting hairs, but in court that sometimes happens.

I don't think the AG's letter was intended to be insulting. In effect, I read it as saying "when there is no definition in law, this is what we do, and you might want to, also..."
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Old April 4, 2014, 10:53 AM   #11
Frank Ettin
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Quote:
Originally Posted by 44 AMP
...I don't think the AG's letter was intended to be insulting. In effect, I read it as saying "when there is no definition in law, this is what we do, and you might want to, also..."
Consulting the dictionary is certainly what the courts do. See Perrin v. United States, 444 U.S. 37 (United States Supreme Court, 1979), at 42:
Quote:
...A fundamental canon of statutory construction is that, unless otherwise defined, words will be interpreted as taking their ordinary, contemporary, common meaning...
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