Form vs. Function: Modifications on Defensive Firearms

You cannot discuss defensive firearms without the topic of modifications rearing its evil head. The common argument is that you should never modify a firearm that will be used for duty or defensive applications. The peanut gallery will claim that you will be torn apart in court. They will argue that any modification will be paraded in front of the jury and the lawyers will show your bloodlust led you to turn your firearm into the most efficient weapon of mass destruction.

I am not sure where this rumor started or why it maintains its grip on the shooting world. When you hear these kinds of statements, the persons making them usually have no experience with the legal system. Many have never stepped foot in a courtroom or spoken with a prosecuting attorney.

Thyrm SwitchbackThe reality of the situation is that if you are justified in using deadly force to prevent serious bodily injury to yourself or another, it does not much matter that device, tool, or means you use to accomplish the task. If the weapon used was lawfully owned at the time it was used, then it is unlikely that it will factor into a criminal proceeding. Try as I might, I have not been able to find a single court case in any part of the country that demonstrates otherwise. If you know of one, please let us know.

Do not think that this means there are no consequences to modifying a defensive firearm. In the event that something went wrong, or the justification was not clear, the weapon may be a key piece of evidence in a criminal trial. If you are not charged criminally, there may be situations where you can still be sued in civil court. Here, the modifications of your firearm may be used to show your “intent” or your “state of mind” prior to the incident.

There is no bright line distinction between what is a “good” modification and what is “bad”. My suggestion is simple, if you think it could be twisted into showing murderous intent, it may be something you want to leave off your firearm. If you don’t feel you have the ability to make the distinction, then leave your firearm in stock configuration. Those neat “Punisher” logo grips look cool in photos and on the movie screen. Slap them on a 1911 that you have to use to defend your life in some back alley, and now you are painted as a “vigilante” who was just looking for a reason to “punish” someone.

The best advice I can give is to leave the cosmetic modifications off of your defensive guns. I am not talking about coating such as Cerakote or other protective finishes. I am talking about the logos, mottos, and cute characters. What they mean to you and your circle of friends may not be true to the jury deciding your fate in a criminal or civil trial.

Mesa Officer Philip Brailsford charged with murder after January 18, 2016 shooting.
Mesa Officer Philip Brailsford charged with murder after January 18, 2016 shooting.

As I write this, a former Officer in Mesa, AZ is going to trial for murder resulting from an on-duty dispatched run. The details of the shooting are underscored by the fact that the Officer chose to install a “customized” ejection port cover on his personally owned, duty AR15. The ejection port cover had the words “You’re Fucked” inscribed on the inside surface. The fact that it was designed so it can only be seen after the weapon was fired seems to be a vocal point in this case. The Officer has been terminated from his job. He is facing a criminal trial and the family of the suspect has filed a civil suit as well.

“That statement tells me this is a person who’s enthusiastic about killing people,” Marc Victor, lawyer for Sweet and her late husband, argued. “That’s what that inscription means.”

The attorney for the family is specifically honing in on this one accessory to try to twist what sounds like a fairly straight forward shoot. In this instance police were called to a “subject with a gun” run at a hotel where the suspect was pointing what appeared to be a firearm. At some point, before he was properly searched, the suspect reached for his waistband and was shot. The fact that he did not have a gun on him at that time matters little. The possibility that he was reaching for a weapon existed when the Officer pulled the trigger. I won’t argue on if the Officer was justified or not. I don’t have enough information to make that determination. That is for the court to decide. I only mention it because the off-color inscription on the ejection port cover made national headlines.

AZ Family 3 Video (prosecuting attorney comments at 1:40)

I understand the desire to personalize firearms. In the competition world, vibrant colors, flags, etc. have become the norm. It makes competitors and sponsored gear stand out. Competition is a GAME. Never forget that. In the real world, we don’t want to stand out. We want to blend in. We want to go un-noticed until we have to act. The pink purse guns are cute, but bright pink draws the eye and would be difficult to draw clandestinely.
Functional modifications are a totally different topic. Modifications and accessories that are added to make a firearm more accurate or easier to manipulate are much easier to justify than cosmetic modifications like our maligned ejection port cover. An extended safety lever or a magazine release button are easy to explain to “non-gun” people. A weapon light is even easier to explain. If it needs to be there to help you put your bullet on target, you are probably going to be OK.

IMG_8153Lastly I want to mention trigger pull weight. This is probably the one modification that is argued the most. A light, safe trigger is not a liability. Where you put your finger is the liability. More than a few people have found themselves on the receiving end of criminal charges due to a negligent discharge that killed or seriously injured someone. If you routinely compete in stressful situations with a 3 lb. trigger on your handgun, it is unlikely that a 3 lb. trigger is going to be unsafe on a duty/defensive handgun. If you are the guy that the RO is always yelling at to “get your finger off the trigger”, even a 8 lb. trigger may not be enough. This is a training issue and not an equipment issue.

Trigger pull weights should still be kept in the “reasonable” range for carry guns. There will come a time when something fouls your draw. You don’t want to fumble a gun with a 8 oz. trigger. However, installing a Glock “minus” connector in your carry gun should not cause you any concern whatsoever.

The one trigger “modification” that should be avoided on duty/defensive guns is the “home trigger job”. Quite a few triggers have been “polished” from safe and functional to negligently dangerous. If you ever have a malfunction that causes an injury, it is easier to lay it at the feet of the manufacturer or company that performed the trigger job.  It is more difficult to attempt to explain to a jury what qualifications YOU have, that gave you the experience to safely modify the firearm. If you decide to do your own work as an “amateur gunsmith” make sure you take it to a qualified armorer afterwards to have it thoroughly inspected. I carry several factory armorer certifications and I have worked on my own firearms for many years. I still occasionally have someone else double-check my work on carry guns.

Be smart about your modifications. Follow form over function. Don’t stand out in the crowd and…..Get Out and Shoot!

Disclaimer: None of the information in this article should be construed as legal advice. You should always consult a qualified attorney regarding matters that could land you in prison for most of your life.

One thought on “Form vs. Function: Modifications on Defensive Firearms”

  1. John, you nailed it with your commentary on the matter. Obviously working for a larger agency, I’m given no say in what I carry while on duty. On my personal pistols there is nothing special except for aftermarket sights and a trigger job with the work done by a well known, competent gunsmith, with a copy of the work kept for my records. For those working in Agencies that may allow you to carry your own personal sidearm, and/or patrol rifle or shotgun, please do remember that one day you may find your firearms being looked at by others.

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