423 U.S. 212 (1976), 74-5566, Barrett v. United States

Docket Nº:No. 74-5566
Citation:423 U.S. 212, 96 S.Ct. 498, 46 L.Ed.2d 450
Party Name:Barrett v. United States
Case Date:January 13, 1976
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 212

423 U.S. 212 (1976)

96 S.Ct. 498, 46 L.Ed.2d 450



United States

No. 74-5566

United States Supreme Court

Jan. 13, 1976

Argued November 4, 1975




The provision of the Gun Control Act of 1968, 18 U.S.C. § 922(h), making it unlawful for a convicted felon, inter alia, "to receive any firearm or ammunition which has been shipped or transported in interstate or foreign commerce," held to apply to a convicted felon's intrastate purchase from a retail dealer of a firearm that previously, but independently of the felon's receipt, had been transported in interstate commerce from the manufacturer to a distributor and then from the distributor to the dealer. Pp. 215-225.

504 F.2d 629, affirmed.

BLACKMUN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and BRENNAN, WHITE, MARSHALL, and POWELL, JJ., joined. WHITE, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 225. STEWART, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which REHNQUIST, J., joined, post, p. 228. STEVENS, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

BLACKMUN, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE BLACKMUN delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioner Pearl Barrett has been convicted by a jury in the United States District Court for the Eastern District

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of Kentucky of a violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(h),1 a part of the Gun Control Act of 1968, Pub.L. 9618, 82 Stat. 1213, amending the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968, Pub.L. 9351, 82 Stat.197, enacted earlier the same year. The issue before us is whether § 922(h) has application to a purchaser's intrastate acquisition of a firearm that previously, but independently of the purchaser's receipt, had been transported in interstate commerce from the manufacturer to a distributor and then from the distributor to the dealer.


In January, 1967, petitioner was convicted in a Kentucky state court of housebreaking. He received a two-year sentence. On April 1, 1972, he purchased a .32 caliber Smith & Wesson revolver over the counter from a Western Auto Store in Booneville, Ky., where petitioner resided.2 The vendor, who was a local dentist as

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well as the owner of the store, and who was acquainted with petitioner, was a federally licensed firearms dealer. The weapon petitioner purchased had been manufactured in Massachusetts, shipped by the manufacturer to a distributor in North Carolina, and then received by the Kentucky dealer from the distributor in March, 1972, a little less than a month prior to petitioner's purchase. The sale to Barrett was the firearm's first retail transaction. It was the only handgun then in the dealer's stock. Tr. 36 47.

Within an hour after the purchase, petitioner was arrested by a county sheriff for driving while intoxicated. The firearm, fully loaded, was on the floorboard of the car on the driver's side.

Petitioner was charged with a violation of § 922(h). He pleaded not guilty. At the trial, no evidence was presented to show that Barrett personally had participated in any way in the previous interstate movement of the firearm. The evidence was merely to the effect that he had purchased the revolver out of the local dealer's stock, and that the gun, having been manufactured and then warehoused in other States, had reached the dealer through interstate channels. At the close of the prosecution's case, Barrett moved for a directed verdict of acquittal on the ground that § 922(h) was not applicable to his receipt of the firearm.3 The motion

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was denied. The court instructed the jury that the statute's interstate requirement was satisfied if the firearm at some time in its past had traveled in interstate commerce.4 A verdict of guilty was returned. Petitioner received a sentence of three years, subject to the immediate parole eligibility provisions of 18 U.S.C. § 4208(a)(2).

On appeal, the Court of Appeals affirmed by a divided vote on the question before us. 504 F.2d 629 (CA6 1974). Because of the importance of the issue and because the Sixth Circuit's decision appeared to have overtones of conflict with the opinion and decision of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit in United States v. Ruffin, 490 F.2d 557 (1974), we granted certiorari limited to the § 922(h) issue. 420 U.S. 923 (1975).


Petitioner concedes that Congress, under the Commerce Clause of the Constitution, has the power to regulate interstate trafficking in firearms. Brief for Petitioner 7. He states, however, that the issue before

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us concerns the scope of Congress' exercise of that power in this statute. He argues that, in its enactment of § 922(h), Congress was interested in "the business of gun traffic," Brief for Petitioner 11; that the Act was meant "to deal with businesses, not individuals per se" (emphasis in original), id. at 14, that is, with mail-order houses, out-of-state sources, and the like; and that the Act was not intended to, and does not, reach an isolated intrastate receipt, such as Barrett's transaction, where the handgun was sold within Kentucky by a local merchant to a local resident with whom the merchant was acquainted, and where the transaction "has no apparent connection with interstate commerce," despite the weapon's manufacture and original distribution in States other than Kentucky. Id. at 6.

We feel, however, that the language of § 922(h), the structure of the Act of which § 922(h) is a part, and the manifest purpose of Congress are all adverse to petitioner's position.

A. Section 922(h) pointedly and simply provides that it is unlawful for four categories of persons, including a convicted felon, "to receive any firearm or ammunition which has been shipped or transported in interstate or foreign commerce." The quoted language is without ambiguity. It is directed unrestrictedly at the felon's receipt of any firearm that "has been" shipped in interstate commerce. It contains no limitation to a receipt which itself is part of the interstate movement. We therefore have no reason to differ with the Court of Appeals' majority's conclusion that the language "means exactly what it says." 504 F.2d at 632.

It is to be noted, furthermore, that, while the proscribed act, "to receive any firearm," is in the present tense, the interstate commerce reference is in the present perfect tense, denoting an act that has been completed.

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Thus, there is no warping or stretching of language when the statute is applied to a firearm that already has completed its interstate journey and has come to rest in the dealer's showcase at the time of its purchase and receipt by the felon. Congress knew the significance and meaning of the language it employed. It used the present perfect tense elsewhere in the same section, namely, in § 922(h)(1) (a person who "has been convicted"), and in § 922(h)(4) (a person who "has been adjudicated" or who "has been committed"), in contrast to its use of the present tense ("who is") in §§ 922(h)(1), (2), and (3). The statute's pattern is consistent, and no unintended misuse of language or of tense is apparent.

Had Congress intended to confine § 922(h) to direct interstate receipt, it would have so provided, just as it did in other sections of the Gun Control Act. See § 922(a)(3) (declaring it unlawful for a nonlicensee to receive in the State where he resides a firearm purchased or obtained "by such person outside that State"); § 922(j) (prohibiting the receipt of a stolen firearm "moving as . . . interstate . . . commerce"); and § 922(k) (prohibiting the receipt "in interstate . . . commerce" of a firearm the serial number of which has been removed). Statutes other than the Gun Control Act similarly utilize restrictive language when only direct interstate commerce is to be reached. See, e.g., 18 U.S.C. §§ 659, 1084, 1201, 1231, 1951, 1952, 2313, 2315, and 2421, and 15 U.S.C. § 77e. As we have said, there is no ambiguity in the words of § 922(h), and there is no justification for indulging in uneasy statutory construction. United States v. Wiltberger, 5 Wheat. 76, 95-96 (1820); Yates v. United States, 354 U.S. 298, 305 (1957); Huddleston v. United States, 415 U.S. 814, 831 (1974). See United States v. Sullivan, 332 U.S. 689, 696 (1948). There is no occasion here to [96 S.Ct. 502] resort to a rule of lenity,

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see Rewis v. United States, 401 U.S. 808, 812 (1971); United States v. Bass, 404 U.S. 336, 347 (1971), for there is no ambiguity that calls for a resolution in favor of lenity. A criminal statute, to be sure, is to be strictly construed, but it is "not to be construed so strictly as to defeat the obvious intention of the legislature." American Fur Co. v. United States, 2 Pet. 358, 367 (1829); Huddleston v. United States, 415 U.S. at 831.

B. The very structure of the Gun Control Act demonstrates that Congress did not intend merely to restrict interstate sales, but sought broadly to keep firearms away from the persons Congress classified as potentially irresponsible and dangerous. These persons are comprehensively barred by the Act from acquiring firearms by any means. Thus, § 922(d) prohibits a licensee from knowingly selling or otherwise disposing of any firearm (whether in an interstate or intrastate transaction, see Huddleston v. United States, 415 U.S. at 833) to the same categories of potentially irresponsible persons. If § 922(h) were to be construed as petitioner suggests, it would not complement § 922(d), and a gap in the statute's coverage would be created, for then, although the licensee is prohibited from selling either interstate or intrastate to the designated person, the vendee is not prohibited from receiving unless the transaction is itself interstate.


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