Potato guns aren’t firearms, but still dangerous: magistrate

A stack of flyers on a table

Potato guns aren’t firearms, a magistrate has ruled. Photo: StefZ (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Police in Melbourne have seized several 3D printed guns in a straightforward case of unregistered weapons – but one year ago, what exactly constituted an illegal firearm wasn’t so clear.

Following the October 2021 trial in the Dandenong magistrates court – which referenced Monty Python, dwarves being shot out of cannons, and the military general Hannibal – Tarneit woman Andrea Lewis was acquitted of two charges in relation to possession of firearms, after 2 PVC “potato guns” were discovered at her home.

The potato guns were found during a search related to a vehicle theft and obtaining property by deception nearly two years earlier, on New Year’s Eve 2019.

The defendant pleaded not guilty on the basis that the PVC devices were not guns, with the police saying that they were.

Both the defence and the prosecutor agreed the case rested on the definition of a firearm, agreeing that the definition covers a device that is by use of combustion or compressed gas stored in the device used to fire a bullet, shot or other missile.

The key components of the case included how the device stores the combustion materials and what falls under “other missile” and whether organic materials – that is, the vegetables – suited that definition.

Victoria police argued that “other missile” is a generic term (as a previous prosecution in South Australia used similar language; the SA law using the term “other object”) in an attempt to rule out any semantics of language.

Police had unsuccessfully made attempts to prosecute gel blaster owners and in this case clarified that since the devices in question could cause physical damage – unlike the gel blasters – they needed to treated as a firearm.

Officers then demonstrated videos of the devices being used to fire potatoes and damage at a cardboard target.

The defence argued that the device didn’t store or produce gasses (as there was no compression of gasses or conversion of powder to gas).

Arguing that “shot or bullet or other missile” referred to metal or hard objects capable of significant harm when fired from firearms, the defence said this would be more congruent as the Act was designed to recognise and reduce public endangerment from such devices.

The parties in the case agreed that firearms as they developed did use a similar ignition method to the potato hurling device but such a method has not been used in the manufacture of modern firearms in a hundred years.

Discussion in the court covered the firearms act not including organic projectiles in the definition of ammunition, including corpses, diseased livestock fired from primitive trebuchets or dwarves in “modern” circus cannons.

Ultimately, magistrate Gerard Bryant’s decision was that the device shouldn’t be considered a firearm.

Mr Bryant noted that the ruling should not be considered permission for the populace to arm themselves with potato guns, as they were still considered a dangerous device under the law.