As always, I have an opinion to share.
Disclaimer – I am not a lawyer. I don’t pretend to be one. I don’t want to be one.
Background – I do teach concealed handgun permit classes in Colorado. I love it. I am also authorized to teach courses that meet the requirements of the Utah concealed handgun permit. I have military experience that I will not discuss with most people. I have taken several armorer courses, and am qualified/certified as an armorer for multiple handgun manufacturers.
I often read questions on forums, and am asked by students, around whether it is OK to modify an every day carry (EDC) handgun, also known as a carry gun that is either carried openly or concealed. I see many people jump up and say that it can be held against you in court and your gun should remain completely stock. The other side responds by asking for any court case where it has been a factor in a justified defensive shooting. I am in the latter group as there is no case where a justified shooting has turned into an unjustified shooting because of a gun modification.
Some of the common modifications made to a hand gun include the following (I am certain that I missed some of the more common ones):
- Grip – This includes stippling, applying grip tape or sleeves, grip panels, grip size reductions, removal of finger grooves, and extensions.
- Slide – This includes engraving, custom back plates, slide cuts, and custom fitting.
- Barrel – This includes barrel crowning, refinishing or coating, and custom fitting as well as replacement barrels.
- Color – This includes using nail polish or melted crayon to fill in engravings, refinishing the slide and receiver with custom coatings in custom colors, and even having designs put on the gun.
Most of the time, the question has to do with trigger jobs or replacement triggers and changing the weight of the trigger. Of course, there are also questions regarding other modifications that are functional or cosmetic. In any case, it is about whether any of these modifications will have an impact on your case in the event you are involved in a defensive shooting. Since the trigger is the main one, and the most discussed, let’s start off with a couple of definitions and focus on the trigger for the rest of this blog, even though it applies to all modifications.
Trigger Job – A trigger job can be simply polishing the components of the trigger and removing any burrs in the metal, or it can involve changing the engagement of the trigger, sear, and hammer/striker. Changing the angle of engagement between the components and replacing the springs may be part of the trigger job. The goal is to improve the trigger pull and its impact on keeping the sight picture on the target. A good trigger job will provide a smoother trigger pull, and most likely, reduce the weight of the trigger pull. A good trigger job will allow you, as a shooter, the ability to keep your sights on the target as a poor trigger will require greater pressure on the trigger which will then make it harder to keep the sights on target.
In my case, I am thinking very seriously about replacing the trigger shoe on my Glock 43 [edit – I did it]. I hate the way the trigger feels against my finger and how it has graduated steps and grooves (shown here) on its face of the trigger shoe that limit my ability to properly train with the gun. After about 30 rounds, it really starts to bother my trigger finger. I may even go so far as to get a complete replacement for the trigger [edit – I did not, replacing the shoe was enough for me].
Replacement Trigger – There are many great third party companies that make their own trigger, and complete kits that include replacement springs, that can be used to completely replace the stock trigger and components. I won’t even try to list them all as it would take a pretty long time. You can research the different options and read reviews for each of them, and you will find that some vendors have much better reputations based on the quality of their parts and their support.
On my S&W M&P Shield, I did a complete trigger replacement with the Apex Duty trigger and springs (shown here). I am glad that I did, as it is a much smoother trigger with a cleaner break than the stock trigger and springs.
What am I allowed to do, and what would be the impact on my case in the event I am involved in a defensive shooting?
As always, the answer is, “It depends.” In the vast majority of the cases, it won’t make any difference whatsoever in your case. The reason is that your modifications, functional or cosmetic, have nothing to do with whether you violated a law or whether you violated a person’s rights. The “it depends” part is whether you have a competent lawyer that understands how to respond to a prosecutor or plaintiff’s lawyer that tries to influence the jury by trying to make a modification into an issue when it is not an issue. A good lawyer will object to any mention of such modifications as they are not relevant.
Note: A modification can be an issue in cases where you did not intend to shoot (a negligent discharge). So, yes, if you have a negligent discharge that harms or kills an innocent person, then your functional modifications matter.
If, let’s hope it doesn’t happen, you must draw your gun and shoot an attacker, there are some possible repercussions. You can, and most likely, will be arrested, and you might be charged with one of the following (I am going to use Colorado law as I am pretty familiar with it):
Murder in the First Degree – There are three elements to be convicted of this charge. They are:
- Intent – You intended to cause the death of the other person. it was your plan. This is where modifications might come into play as the prosecutor tries to prove intent.
- Deliberation – Also known as premeditation, you have to have had time to consider it and make the conscious decision to commit the murder. Generally, this means that you had time to reconsider and second guess yourself.
- Death – The person must actually be killed.
Murder in the Second Degree – The elements are a bit different. In particular, the change between Murder in the First Degree and Murder in the Second Degree is the “deliberation” element. There is no deliberation if:
- In the heat of passion.
- Instigated by a serious and highly provoking act of the victim and there is not a sufficient time between instigation and the act for second guessing and reconsideration.
Manslaughter – The difference between Murder in the Second Degree and Manslaughter is that in Manslaughter, the act is not knowingly committed, but it is committed recklessly. In other words, there is no intent, but there is negligence.
Assault in the First Degree – Intent to cause serious bodily injury or to disfigure another person, resulting in serious bodily injury or disfigurement to any person by means of a deadly weapon. So, again, intent must be shown.
Others – There are other charges where the attacker lives, and it becomes attempted murder or other lesser crimes.
Choice of Evils – The Choice of Evils allows people to engage in what would normally be an offense (like Assault in the First Degree or Murder in the Second Degree) to prevent another offense from harming us or third parties.
Use of Physical Force in Defense of a Person – In cases where a person reasonably believes that the imminent actions of another person may cause death or great bodily injury, then you are allowed to use physical force, and even deadly force is allowed.
Impact of Gun Modifications
In all of the above possible charges, you will not see any place where the tool, the handgun, has been modified in any way as part of the equation will impact the defense against any charges brought. In fact, there is no place in any of the laws that you would likely be charged with that have any element associated with the defense tool used being modified.
In you intend to pull the trigger, and do so, and the gun goes off like it is supposed to, then any legal standard for charges brought against you will not apply to any modifications of your handgun. Even if a prosecutor brings it up, your qualified defense lawyer will shoot it down (pun intended), and the judge will also back up your lawyer as it isn’t relevant. In the worst case where a jury might hear that you made changes to your gun, it can be addressed in further questioning, and the judge will make it clear what the jury is supposed to consider when the judge provides the jury instructions on what is required to convict you of any charges brought by the prosecution. The jury instructions are clear in that they define the elements that must be proven in the case.
Yeah, there is usually a “however” in these discussions. In this case, we need to understand that if we make changes that impact the safety of a handgun that we use, and it causes a negligent discharge, then we will be held liable for any death, injury, or damage to property that is caused by that negligent discharge.
As soon as you say, “I didn’t intend to shoot…” then the modifications to your handgun are very much in play. You just did something that was negligent. You will pay the consequences.
Please understand that if you make changes that impact the safety of your handgun, and your gun goes off when you don’t intend it to go off, then you will be liable. You can protect yourself, though.
Do not modify your handgun. If you don’t screw with it, and something happens that is beyond your control (i.e. you drop your gun, and the drop safety fails because of its design), the manufacturer will be held liable.
Use Qualified Gunsmiths – Of course, if you are going to have some work done that will change the gun from its stock configuration, use a qualified/certified gunsmith. Don’t do it yourself and take on the liability of you making a change that might impact the safety of your gun. Liability is why you will never see a gun manufacturer support third party components.
Verify Safeties – I tell all of my students that anytime you work on your gun, even if it is cleaning it, you need to do a function check before you load it up and use it. Test the trigger safety. Test the trigger with the safety disengaged. Test the reset of the trigger. Test the grip safety if you have one. Test any manuals safeties that you have, and then test the trigger and the trigger reset after each one is disengaged.
Follow the Four Safety Rules – Jeff Cooper’s four rules have become universal because they make great sense. The community, overall, has accepted them and they are taught all of the time. In the case of a trigger, Rule 3 is huge. Keep your finger off of that trigger until you are ready to activate the trigger and shoot.
Train – Take training classes, and document your training. If you say that you were taught “in this situation, you should…” you need to be able to say who taught you that and when. For example, I have been taught that when the attacker is wearing body armor or some kind of explosive vest, I should take head shots. If such a situation came up, and I was questioned on it, I can easily show that I was taught by qualified people and they can verify and back up my training.
Be able to Articulate Your Modifications – Understand why you have had others make modifications to your handgun and the value of those modifications. For example, if you can clearly state that the trigger was modified because the new/modified trigger is crisper and smoother and results in you being more accurate and less likely to shoot an innocent bystander, that will make a difference if it is ever brought up.
Legal Up! – By this, I mean, make sure you know the laws where you carry, make sure you have a good defense insurance plan, and make sure you have a plan in case you are involved in a defensive shooting.
Please review the following links. They may be valuable to you in your decision making when it comes to modifications to your every day carry handgun.