511 U.S. 600 (1994), 92-1441, Staples v. United States

Docket Nº:No. 92-1441
Citation:511 U.S. 600, 114 S.Ct. 1793, 128 L.Ed.2d 608, 62 U.S.L.W. 4379
Case Date:May 23, 1994
Court:United States Supreme Court

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511 U.S. 600 (1994)

114 S.Ct. 1793, 128 L.Ed.2d 608, 62 U.S.L.W. 4379




No. 92-1441

United States Supreme Court

May 23, 1994

Argued November 30, 1993



The National Firearms Act criminalizes possession of an unregistered "firearm," 26 U.S.C. § 5861(d), including a "machinegun," § 5845(a)(6), which is defined as a weapon that automatically fires more than one shot with a single pull of the trigger, § 5845(b). Petitioner Staples was charged with possessing an unregistered machinegun in violation of § 5861(d) after officers searching his home seized a semiautomatic rifle— i.e., a weapon that normally fires only one shot with each trigger pull— that had apparently been modified for fully automatic fire. At trial, Staples testified that the rifle had never fired automatically while he possessed it and that he had been ignorant of any automatic firing capability. He was convicted after the District Court rejected his proposed jury instruction under which, to establish a § 5861(d) violation, the Government would have been required to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Staples knew that the gun would fire fully automatically. The Court of Appeals affirmed, concluding that the Government need not prove a defendant's knowledge of a weapon's physical properties to obtain a conviction under § 5861(d).


To obtain a § 5861(d) conviction, the Government should have been required to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Staples knew that his rifle had the characteristics that brought it within the statutory definition of a machinegun. Pp. 604-619.

(a) The common-law rule requiring mens rea as an element of a crime informs interpretation of § 5861(d) in this case. Because some indication of congressional intent, express or implied, is required to dispense with mens rea, § 5861(d)'s silence on the element of knowledge required for a conviction does not suggest that Congress intended to dispense with a conventional mens rea requirement, which would require that the defendant know the facts making his conduct illegal. Pp. 604-606.

(b) The Court rejects the Government's argument that the Act fits within the Court's line of precedent concerning "public welfare" or "regulatory" offenses and thus that the presumption favoring mens rea does not apply in this case. In cases concerning public welfare offenses, the Court has inferred from silence a congressional intent to dispense with conventional mens rea requirements in statutes that regulate potentially harmful or injurious items. In such cases, the Court has reasoned

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that as long as a defendant knows that he is dealing with a dangerous device of a character that places him in responsible relation to a public danger, he should be alerted to the probability of strict regulation, and is placed on notice that he must determine at his peril whether his conduct comes within the statute's inhibition. See, e.g., United States v. Balint, 258 U.S. 250; United States v. Freed, 401 U.S. 601. Guns, however, do not fall within the category of dangerous devices as it has been developed in public welfare offense cases. In contrast to the selling of dangerous drugs at issue in Balint or the possession of hand grenades considered in Freed, private ownership of guns in this country has enjoyed a long tradition of being entirely lawful conduct. Thus, the destructive potential of guns in general cannot be said to put gun owners sufficiently on notice of the likelihood of regulation to justify interpreting § 5861(d) as dispensing with proof of knowledge of the characteristics that make a weapon a "firearm" under the statute. The Government's interpretation potentially would impose criminal sanctions on a class of persons whose mental state—ignorance of the characteristics of weapons in their possession—makes their actions entirely innocent. Had Congress intended to make outlaws of such citizens, it would have spoken more clearly to that effect. Pp. 606-616.

(c) The potentially harsh penalty attached to violation of § 5861(d)— up to 10 years' imprisonment—confirms the foregoing reading of the Act. Where, as here, dispensing with mens rea would require the defendant to have knowledge only of traditionally lawful conduct, a severe penalty is a further factor tending to suggest that Congress did not intend to eliminate a mens rea requirement. Pp. 616-619.

(d) The holding here is a narrow one that depends on a commonsense evaluation of the nature of the particular device Congress has subjected to regulation, the expectations that individuals may legitimately have in dealing with that device, and the penalty attached to a violation. It does not set forth comprehensive criteria for distinguishing between crimes that require a mental element and crimes that do not. Pp. 619-620.

971 F.2d 608, reversed and remanded.

Thomas, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Rehnquist, C. J., and Scalia, Kennedy, and Souter, JJ., joined. Ginsburg, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which O'Connor, J., joined, post, p. 620. Stevens, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Blackmun, J., joined, post, p. 624.

Jennifer L. De Angelis argued the cause for petitioner. With her on the brief was Clark O. Brewster.

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James A. Feldman argued the cause for the United States. With him on the brief were Solicitor General Days, Acting Assistant Attorney General Keeney, Deputy Solicitor General Bryson, and John F. De Pue.

Justice Thomas delivered the opinion of the Court.

The National Firearms Act makes it unlawful for any person to possess a machinegun that is not properly registered with the Federal Government. Petitioner contends that, to convict him under the Act, the Government should have been required to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he knew the weapon he possessed had the characteristics that brought it within the statutory definition of a machinegun. We agree and accordingly reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals.


The National Firearms Act (Act), 26 U.S.C. §§ 5801-5872, imposes strict registration requirements on statutorily defined "firearms." The Act includes within the term "firearm" a machinegun, § 5845(a)(6), and further defines a machinegun as "any weapon which shoots,. . . or can be readily restored to shoot, automatically more than one shot, without manual reloading, by a single function of the trigger," § 5845(b). Thus, any fully automatic weapon is a "firearm" within the meaning of the Act.[1] Under the Act, all firearms must be registered in the National Firearms Registration and Transfer Record maintained by the Secretary of the Treasury. § 5841. Section 5861(d) makes it a crime, punishable

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by up to 10 years in prison, see § 5871, for any person to possess a firearm that is not properly registered.

Upon executing a search warrant at petitioner's home, local police and agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) recovered, among other things, an AR-15 rifle. The AR-15 is the civilian version of the military's M-16 rifle, and is, unless modified, a semiautomatic weapon. The M-16, in contrast, is a selective fire rifle that allows the operator, by rotating a selector switch, to choose semiautomatic or automatic fire. Many M-16 parts are interchangeable with those in the AR-15 and can be used to convert the AR-15 into an automatic weapon. No doubt to inhibit such conversions, the AR-15 is manufactured with a metal stop on its receiver that will prevent an M-16 selector switch, if installed, from rotating to the fully automatic position. The metal stop on petitioner's rifle, however, had been filed away, and the rifle had been assembled with an M-16 selector switch and several other M-16 internal parts, including a hammer, disconnector, and trigger. Suspecting that the AR-15 had been modified to be capable of fully automatic fire, BATF agents seized the weapon. Petitioner subsequently was indicted for unlawful possession of an unregistered machinegun in violation of § 5861(d).

At trial, BATF agents testified that when the AR-15 was tested, it fired more than one shot with a single pull of the trigger. It was undisputed that the weapon was not registered as required by § 5861(d). Petitioner testified that the rifle had never fired automatically when it was in his possession. He insisted that the AR-15 had operated only semiautomatically, and even then imperfectly, often requiring manual ejection of the spent casing and chambering of the next round. According to petitioner, his alleged ignorance of any automatic firing capability should have shielded him from criminal liability for his failure to register the weapon. He requested the District Court to instruct the jury that, to establish a violation of § 5861(d), the Government must prove

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beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant "knew that the gun would fire fully automatically." 1 App. to Brief for Appellant in No. 91-5033 (CA10), p. 42.

The District Court rejected petitioner's proposed instruction and instead charged the jury as follows:

"The Government need not prove the defendant knows he's dealing with a weapon possessing every last characteristic [which subjects it][2] to the regulation. It would be enough to prove he knows that he is dealing with a dangerous device of a type as would alert one to the likelihood of regulation." Tr. 465.

Petitioner was convicted and sentenced to five years' probation and a $5,000 fine.

The Court of Appeals affirmed. Relying on its decision in United States v. Mittleider, 835 F.2d 769 (CA10 1987), cert. denied, 485 U.S. 980 (1988), the court concluded that the Government need not prove a defendant's knowledge of a weapon's physical properties to obtain a conviction under § 5861(d). 971 F.2d 608, 612-613 (CA10 1992). We granted...

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