In case to be heard in Bondurant April 2, Iowa Supreme Court is asked: When is a ‘firearm’ not an ‘offensive weapon’?

by Rox Laird | March 22, 2024

Is a replica of a 19th century muzzleloader rifle a “firearm” under Iowa law? No, argues a Burlington man convicted of possessing a firearm in violation of state law.

That question is the heart of an appeal to be argued before the Iowa Supreme Court in a special session April 2 in Bondurant. The oral argument, which will be heard in the Bondurant-Farrar High School auditorium, 1000 Grant St. N at 7 p.m., is part of the Court’s recent practice of traveling around the state to give Iowans the opportunity to witness how the appellate process works. The justices will also hear arguments in one case at Drake Law School April 4.

[Go to On Brief’s “Cases in the Pipeline” page to read the briefs submitted to the Court in this case.]

In the case to be argued April 2, Adam Rhodes appeals his conviction in Des Moines County District Court of being a felon in possession of a firearm. He argues in a brief submitted to the Court the gun in his possession was “undisputedly a replica of an antique firearm (it was a replica of a muzzleloader of the early 1800s vintage),” and the felon-in-possession statute exempts such an antique gun or its replica.

Rhodes argues “there was (and apparently still is) no published or unpublished Iowa case on record where such a conviction was entered or affirmed against an Iowa citizen and resident under Iowa’s felon in possession statute.”

Rhodes was charged following an investigation by Iowa Department of Natural Resources enforcement officers that found that Rhodes killed a deer using a replica of an antique muzzleloader rifle.

Rhodes, who has a previous felony conviction, was charged under Iowa Code Chapter 724.26, which makes it a felony for a person convicted of a felony to be in possession of a “firearm or offensive weapon.” He moved to dismiss the charge, arguing the weapon in his possession is specifically exempt under the statute. The trial court dismissed his motion, concluding the gun Rhodes possessed fell within the definition of a “firearm” under the Iowa felon-in-possession statute.

The term “firearm” is not defined in the statute, but the definition of “offensive weapons” specifically excludes antique firearms, “including any firearm with a matchlock, flintlock, percussion cap, or similar type of ignition system, manufactured in or before 1898 or any firearm which is a replica of such a firearm ….”

In response to Rhodes’ arguments, the State says the terms “offensive weapons” and “firearms” are distinct terms in Iowa Code with some overlap. Some firearms – with the exception of antique firearms – are identified as offensive weapons under section 724.1 that may not be possessed by ordinary Iowans, including felons.

Although the term “firearm” is not defined in the Code, the State says Iowa courts for more than 40 years have used a common-sense or dictionary definitions of firearms, such as a “weapon from which a projectile is fired by gunpowder.” And because Rhodes’ rifle was designed to propel a 50-caliber projectile by means of an explosive — black powder – it is therefore a firearm.

In 2021 the Legislature amended the Iowa Code in section 683.1(1)(b) to follow the courts’ common-sense definitions of firearm to mean “any weapon that is capable of expelling, designed to expel, or that may readily be converted to expel ammunition.”

That section read together with the felon-in-possession section means that someone in possession of an “antique firearm” does not possess an “offensive weapon,” but they do possess a “firearm,” and Rhodes is barred from possessing one, the State concludes.

Iowa legislators’ purpose in prohibiting felons from possessing firearms is that they consider them dangerous, the State argues. “And muzzle-loading rifles that shoot and kill deer will as easily shoot and kill others. Accepting Rhodes’s interpretation undermines the legislature’s rational goal of deterring dangerous persons from possessing firearms. As a result, it would permit all Iowa’s felons to possess weapons that shoot and injure or kill — just as Rhodes’s rifle did. Like the district court, this Court should avoid such an illogical result.”





March 2024 Opinion Roundup

The Iowa Supreme Court entered opinions in ten cases during March 2024. These opinions are summarized below.

Iowa Supreme Court sends ‘stand your ground’ case back for new trial

Lasondra Johnson was tried for first-degree murder for the shooting death of Jada Young-Mills outside a Waterloo residence. Johnson argued she acted in self defense and the shooting was justified under Iowa’s “stand your ground” law that says a person is justified in the use of reasonable force in the belief that such …



On Brief: Iowa’s Appellate Blog is devoted to appellate litigation with a focus on the Iowa Supreme Court, the Iowa Court of Appeals, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.


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