To modify or not to modify, that is the question.
Updated: Feb 2, 2019
I don’t think you’ll ever have a perfect world because we humans are prone to error, and so we’re always in search of an upgrade. – Henry Rollins
This article addresses the legality of modifying a firearm such as putting a flat trigger, certain backplates, certain type of sights (such as an RMR), etc. It does not promote upgrades such as bump stocks, trigger cranks, suppressors, etc. since the legalities of the latter differ from state to state. Also, the article does address certain federal laws; however, when the article refers to use-of-force laws, although many states are similar, it refers specifically to Illinois use-of-force laws as Halo Defense Training & Tactics is based out of Illinois. You should always know your own state laws and it is highly recommended, if possible, to seek some sort of use-of-force training, so you are comfortable knowing when using your firearm is justified.
I recently answered a Facebook post regarding upgrades and modifications to firearms and thought it is a good, thought-provoking, topic. The post was as follows “Self defense guns should never have an upgraded trigger” Why? Because “an upgraded trigger can go against you in court.” The poster made mention that Massad Ayoob, John Lovell and just about “every firearms instructor” recommends “against modifying, carry gun internals.”
As an Illinois recognized Law Enforcement firearms instructor, an NRA basic pistol Instructor and an Illinois Concealed Carry firearms instructor, I do a portion of Illinois Use-of-Force laws, which includes deadly force. I also discuss ammunition and its selection, which is another important topic. However, when it comes to modifications or upgrades I typically don’t provide recommendations on modifications. Not because I’m against them, but because what works for me, may not necessarily work for you. I have, however, offered information on upgrades I like, modifications I have done to my firearms and upgrades I plan to do, but these are for me. When it comes to firearms, we at Halo Defense Training & Tactics will provide information to assist you on choosing something to work for you. We do not have the “end all, be all” mentality as we are aware we are all built different. We also have no issue providing our opinion on a particular product and the pros and cons, but again, what works for one person may differ for another.
I provided my opinion on modification and upgrades but that doesn’t answer the question, “will an upgraded weapon system be used against you in court?”
A court case I recall regarding a certain modification was a case of an officer involved shooting in Meza, Arizona. The incident occurred January 18, 2016. The Meza, Arizona officer, had the words “Your F---ed” inscribed on the inside of his AR-15 dust cover (with the letters “uck” in place of the dashes). For those who are unfamiliar with an AR-15, the dust cover remains closed and the inscription remains hidden until the AR is fired. Although there is more to the case than just the dust cover, the dust cover was one of the points the defense attorney argued. The defense attorney said the officer was a killer and was looking to kill someone, I mean why not, the dust cover said so.
Please note, discussing laws can be a dry and tough to read. If you have questions, please email me and I'll attempt to answer them.
When determining if someone is justified in using deadly force, the court does a “reasonableness test,” as set in the court case, Graham v. Conner. Graham v. Conner is the standard for police related use-of-force incidents; but because there are few civilian cases that stand out, I believe concealed carry holders, will be subjected under the reasonableness standards of many police cases. Why not? A concealed carry holder, who takes protecting oneself against imminent death and/or great bodily harm to oneself or another is in a way acting as a peace office.
Graham v. Conner has several important elements. Since a concealed carry holder keeps his firearm for protecting against deadly force, I will only notate some key parts of the case.
First, in determining reasonableness the courts will determine if “the actions are objectively reasonable in light of the facts and circumstances confronting them, without regard to their underlying intent or motivation.” “An officer’s [or citizen’s] evil intentions will not make a fourth amendment violation out of an objectively reasonable use of force; nor will an officer’s [or citizen’s] good intentions make an objectively unreasonable use of force constitutional (Scott v. us, 436 U.S. 128, 137-139 (1978)).
Translation: it does not matter what type of mods, upgrades or ammo you used or even why you chose to use them. What does matter is if the action of using deadly force was objectively reasonable based on the circumstances of the incident.
Second, “the reasonableness of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer [concealed carry holder] on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight. The calculus of reasonableness must embody allowance for the fact that police officers [concealed carry holder] are often forced to make split-second judgements – in circumstances that are tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving – about the amount of force that is necessary in a particular situation.”
Translation: It is this point where the concealed carry holder is going to be justified based on the circumstances s/he knew at the time, rather than what was learned after the incident. During a life or death situation you may only have a moment to recognize the deadly threat, un-holster your firearm and use it. According to the Graham v. Conner, the concealed carry holder must be judged with the circumstances of the incident and not facts that were learned after the incident.
Back to the Mesa, AZ case. In the hearing, at least in regard to the dust cover, the Maricopa County Superior Court Judge, George Foster, disagreed, that the inscription on the dust cover labeled the officer a “killer.” The honorable Judge Foster stated the “Your F---ed” dust cover was “totally prejudicial,” and although it may have violated department policy the issue was “ancillary.” All the judge was concerned with was “in those eight to nine minutes, were the actions of the defendant REASONABLE under the circumstances.”
Although there may not be a legal concern to modify or upgrade your firearm, there are still many considerations. Here are but a few:
Are the modifications/upgrades reliable? Just because it sounds like the latest and greatest, was it tested. You do not want to find out if it’s unreliable during a life/death incident.
Who is doing the customization? Are you doing it? Are you an armorer? If you are doing it, are you causing further problems? Will modifying one portion cause a malfunction somewhere else?
What is the purpose and drawbacks? Are you upgrading the trigger and why?
Modifications should be done for a purpose and not just because it's "tacticool." For example, there is a purpose when adding lights and/or upgrading sights for home defense. It is a must to be able to identify your target before engaging.
Most of my firearms, with the exceptions of the sights, lights and grip, are stock. And although I don’t usually recommend certain modifications/upgrades, it is not because “a defense attorney will chew you up,” but because of mechanical considerations. Also, modifications do not make you a better shooter. Only proper training can do that. A trigger upgrade is useless without proper trigger control, recoil management and sight alignment. An upgrade or modification is to enhance your firearm for a specific mission.
Can a defense attorney bring up any modifications/upgrades in court in order to label you a killer? Yes. Will the judge hold it against you? Doubtful, especially reviewing the Mesa, AZ case. Justified deadly force is justified deadly force no matter the tool. It shouldn’t matter if you use a handgun (modified or not), a crowbar, or even a rock. All that will matter in court is that you are using deadly force to protect yourself or someone else against imminent death or great bodily harm AND deadly force stops when the deadly threat ends.
As always be safe, stay armed and continue to train.
Halo Defense Training & Tactics, Lead Instructor
Halo Defense Training & Tactics’ instructors have a vast knowledge of use-of-force laws and applications and the experience to teach them to the student. The instructors are constantly seeking and reviewing federal, state and case law in use-of-force applications to better prepare our trainees, especially in the Illinois 16/8 Concealed Carry Course. Our goal is to help those taking our course to feel comfortable in federal and Illinois use-of-force laws so they are better prepared to know when deadly force is justified and how to prepare themselves in the event they are faced with a deadly force situation. This is why Halo Defense Training & Tactics stands out from other companies and should be your choice when seeking a company for your firearms training.