Loophole lets felons own certain firearms

Monday, January 5, 2004

DON FRAZIER * dfrazier@semissourian.com

Brothers Patrick Meyer, John Meyer and Michael Meyer said their goodbyes to friends and family during Army National Guard deployment ceremonies held Sunday at the Perry Park Center in Perryville, Mo.

John Meyer's wife, Tasha, left, and their 8-month-old son, Caleb, were at the ceremony.By Mike Wells ~ Southeast Missourian

A working replica of an 1851 military-style .44-caliber revolver is at the center of a Cape Girardeau police detective's quest to keep such guns out of the hands of convicted felons.

Last month, Elizabeth Perry of Cape Girardeau reported her former son-in-law's pistol was stolen from her home. She had wrapped it in a towel and placed it on a table. When she returned, the gun was gone. When it turned up later in the same spot, detective Jim Smith confiscated the pistol as part of a new investigation into the owner.

The former son-in-law -- Joseph Burgfeld -- is a 46-year-old river barge worker from Bloomfield, Mo., with five felony convictions, including attempted kidnapping. Perry had the weapon for more than two months while Burgfeld was away, she said.

Convicted felons are prohibited from possessing firearms. But the legal definitions of what is and what isn't a "firearm" allow criminals to obtain black powder guns. And after talking with prosecutors, Smith can't find a legal reason to keep the man from owning the weapon.

Federal and Missouri laws define "firearm" to include a weapon that will or is designed to or may readily be converted to expel a projectile by an explosive. However, antique firearms manufactured in or before 1898 and modern replicas using an antique form of ignition such as matchlock, flintlock or percussion cap are not subject to regulation as firearms. These guns may be bought, sold and shipped across state lines without restriction.

Burgfeld bought the weapon for nearly $200 through Cabela's, a hunting and outdoor gear catalog service that offers 35 black powder pistols in its online catalog. The replica of a pistol used by the Confederate Navy during the Civil War came in a kit with 100 balls and accessories.

"When the UPS guy dropped off that box, I looked down at it and wondered at how easy it is for someone to get a gun in the wrong hands," Burgfeld said. "But I don't consider myself the wrong hands."

Smith expressed frustration at the legal loophole. Both .36- and .44-caliber black powder pistols offer 135 to 145 foot-pounds of muzzle energy.

"It'd kill you just as fast as my service weapon," he said. "I don't know how they came up with that definition."

He called Rep. Jo Ann Emerson's office about his concern but hasn't spoken with her, he said.

If a felon is determined to own a gun, obtaining one isn't difficult, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Keith Sorrell. He filed 35 indictments against felons for illegally possessing firearms in 2003 and 41 indictments in 2002, though none concerned felons with antique firearms or replicas.

"It's not that unusual," Sorrell said. "Someone can easily figure that out as a remedy."

Burgfeld no longer wants the pistol. His last felony conviction was for drunken driving in 1988, he said. None of his convictions involved a weapon. But an order of protection against him was obtained last year by a Cape Girardeau woman.

Burgfeld said he used the pistol only once for target practice.

"The only reason I got it was to get into the hobby of black powder pistols," he said. "I guess in a way it was my fault. I should have researched the law better. I'm 46 years old, and this was the first gun I've ever owned in my life. If they want to destroy it, they can -- I can get another hobby. The fun of shooting it isn't worth the paranoia I went through with this dang pistol."

Burgfeld said he's made contact with the police about letting them keep it or destroy it.

mwells@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 160

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