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Legal Implications of Handgun Modifications

March 12, 2009 Equipment Reviews, Firearms Safety, Legal Issues 2 Comments

Question:  My question is the legal implication if any to have work done on your trigger to make it easier to squeeze or to “lighten” it up. I have heard on many “legal” discussions that in the event of a shooting, the prosecutor not only is trying to prove you acted irrationally but may use the “dirty harry” tactic in that you modified the handgun in a way that made it easier to fire. I have been told and read on several occasions to modify handguns that would be used for sport (IPSC, target etc) and don’t modify handguns that you may use for personal defense. The same for reloads.. always use factory loads….

Answer: Unfortunately, the answer here is yes, there are legal implications to using modified triggers on guns used for personal protection.  Stock triggers on handguns can vary based on the type of gun, but generally speaking a semi-automatic pistol will have a trigger pull weight in the 5-7 lb. range, while double action revolvers would have a trigger pull weight in the 8-12 lb. range.  Even a 1911 style single action pistol will have a trigger pull of around 4-4.5 lbs.

Weight of pull is a factor considered by firearms examiners when evaluating the relative safety of a firearm.  A firearm that has been modified to have a very ‘light’ trigger pull weight could be considered by some to be ‘less safe’ than those with a heavier pull.  There is the additional factor that most people do not know how to properly use triggers with a very light pull.  There is a significant amount of ‘finesse’ involved in shooting a light trigger, and even those who are skilled competitors in USPCA, IDPA or IPSC will generally shy away from a trigger with less than 3.5 lbs.

You need to remember that when under extreme stress in a self defense situation, your ability to control fine motor movement  will go out the window.  Gross motor skills will be the order of the day and there will be no ‘finesse’ involved.  In short, a light trigger could result in a firearm being discharged when you really didn’t want it to.  I can imagine any number of scenarios where a light trigger would get a shooter into trouble.  Think in terms of ‘premature discharge’ as you draw under stress or ‘unintentional discharge’ as the firearm is being brought to bear on a target in a stressful situation.  There are literally dozens more situations I could think of.  The heavier trigger weights give you the additional margin of safety that you will absolutely need under the stress of combat.

The legal implication is this.  By modifying the gun to have a very light trigger, you create a greater possibility for accidental or unintentional discharge of the firearm under stress.  Should someone be injured or killed as a result, a good lawyer would probably argue that you were negligent and carrying a firearm that would place yourself and others at risk due to the ‘modification’.  Remember that you must be ‘justified’ in order to use any type of lethal force and if you unintentionally shot someone under stress because of your light trigger you could be criminally charged.  This type of situation would also almost certainly result in civil litigation.  While your constitutional guarantees might make it difficult to prove the criminal charges, the lower standard of proof required and the different rules of evidence on the civil side could leave you extremely vulnerable to a ‘wrongful death’ or other personal injury claim.

There is nothing at all wrong with having a modified trigger if you intend to use your firearm strictly for competitions.  It is when you use the modified gun for personal defense that the criminal and civil liability issue can rear its head.

As far as ammo is concerned, I recommend that people carry a factory loaded defensive round.  My personal preference is to find out what the local police department uses and carry that as my personal defense ammo.  From a legal perspective it eliminates any kind of argument that you were carrying a ‘special hand-loaded cartridge designed solely to kill and mutilate’.  In my mind, I can actually hear a lawyer saying it that way in front of a jury…can’t you?  By carrying a standard defensive round, you eliminate the issue completely.

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Currently there are "2 comments" on this Article:

  1. Brian McCutcheon says:

    i had 2 ganglion cysts, both at the base of both index fingers. i can shoot my pistol with both hands. even though i’m right handed, i shoot better left handed than right handed. however, due to the cysts, i had a gun dealer, also gun smith, put in a glock made trigger with a 3 1/2 pound pull. it has helped out tremendously. as i use this pistol for everything, would i suffer legal rammifications if i were to use this pistol for self defense? i use the same type of ammunition as the local police agencies. i was just wondering because i had a different trigger installed to facilitate my firing of the firearm.

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  2. Doug Little says:

    While you might be able to argue that the handgun modification was necessary to help you use your pistol for self defense, any prosecutor might argue that it was more dangerous and prone to accidental discharge by virtue of the modification. With most legal questions of this type, it becomes an issue of who might the judge and jury believe has a more rational argument. It will also be partly dependent on the circumstances. If you are involved in an otherwise justified shooting, it may be no issue at all. If you have an accident during which your gun discharges and injury or death occurs, you might have a more difficult time.

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