United States v. Bass 8212 71

Decision Date20 December 1971
Docket NumberNo. 70,70
Citation404 U.S. 336,30 L.Ed.2d 488,92 S.Ct. 515
PartiesUNITED STATES, Petitioner, v. Denneth BASS. —71
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Respondent was convicted of possessing firearms in violation of § 1202(a)(1) of the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act, which provides that a person convicted of a felony 'who receives, possesses, or transports in commerce or affecting commerce . . . any firearm . . .' shall be punished as prescribed therein. The indictment did not allege and no attempt was made to show that the firearms involved had been possessed 'in commerce or affecting commerce,' the Government contending that the statute does not require proof of a connection with interstate commerce in individual cases involving possession or receipt. Doubting its constitutionality if the statute were thus construed, the Court of Appeals reversed. Held: It is not clear from the language and legislative history of § 1202(a)(1) whether or not receipt or possession of a firearm by a convicted felon has to be shown in an individual prosecution to have been connected with interstate commerce. The ambiguity of this provision (which is not only a criminal statute but one whose broad construction would define as a federal offense conduct readily proscribed by the States), must therefore be resolved in favor of the narrower reading that a nexus with interstate commerce must be shown with respect to all three offenses embraced by the provision. Pp. 339—351.

434 F.2d 1296, affirmed.

Roger A. Pauley, Washington, D.C., for petitioner.

William E. Hellerstein, New York City, for respondent.

Mr. Justice MARSHALL delivered the opinion of the Court.

Respondent was convicted in the Southern District of New York of possessing firearms in violation of Title VII of the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968, 18 U.S.C.App. § 1202(a). In pertinent part, that statute reads:

'Any person who—

(1) has been convicted by a court of the United States or of a State or any political subdivision thereof of a felony . . . and who receives, possesses, or transports in commerce or affecting commerce . . . any firearm shall be fined not more than $10,000 or imprisoned for not more than two years, or both.'1

The evidence showed that respondent, who had previously been convicted of a felony in New York State, possessed on separate occasions a pistol and then a shotgun. There was no allegation in the indictment and no attempt by the prosecution to show that either firearm had been possessed 'in commerce or affecting commerce.' The Government proceeded on the assumption that § 1202(a) (1) banned all possessions and receipts of firearms by convicted felons, and that no connection with interstate commerce had to be demonstrated in individual cases.

After his conviction,2 respondent unsuccessfully moved for arrest of judgment on two primary grounds: that the statute did not reach possession of a firearm not shown to have been 'in commerce or affecting commerce,' and that, if it did, Congress had overstepped its constitutional powers under the Commerce Clause. 308 F.Supp. 1385. The Court of Appeals reversed the conviction, being of the view that if the Government's construction of the statute were accepted, there would be substantial doubt about the statute's constitutionality. 434 F.2d 1296 (CA 2). We granted certiorari, 401 U.S. 993, 91 S.Ct. 1234, 28 L.Ed.2d 530 to resolve a conflict among lower courts over the proper reach of the statute.3 We affirm the judgment of the court below but for substantially different reasons.4 We conclude that § 1202 is ambiguous in the critical respect. Because its sanctions are criminal and because, under the Government's broader reading, the statute would mark a major inroad into a domain traditionally left to the States, we refuse to adopt the broad reading in the absence of a clearer direction from Congress.


Not wishing 'to give point to the quip that only when legislative history is doubtful do you go to the statute,'5 we begin by looking to the text itself. The critical textual question is whether the statutory phrase 'in commerce or affecting commerce' applies to 'possesses' and 'receives' as well as to 'transports.' If it does, then the Government must prove as an essential element of the offense that a possession, receipt, or transportation was 'in commerce or affecting commerce'—a burden not undertaken in this prosecution for possession.

While the statute does not read well under either view, 'the natural construction of the language' suggests that the clause 'in commerce or affecting commerce' qualifies all three antecedents in the list. Porto Rico Railway Light & Power Co. v. Mor, 253 U.S. 345, 348, 40 S.Ct. 516, 518, 64 L.Ed. 944 (1920). Since 'in commerce or affecting commerce' undeniably applies to at least one antecedent, and since it makes sense with all three, the more plausible construction here is that it in fact applies to all three. But although this is a beginning, the argument is certainly neither overwhelming nor decisive.6

In a more significant respect, however, the language of the statute does provide support for respondent's reading. Undeniably, the phrase 'in commerce or affecting commerce' is part of the 'transports' offense. But if that phrase applies only to 'transports,' the statute would have a curious reach. While permitting transportation of a firearm unless it is transported 'in commerce or affecting commerce,' the statute would prohibit all possessions of firearms, and both interstate and intrastate receipts. Since virtually all transportations, whether interstate or intrastate, involve an accompanying possession or receipt, it is odd indeed to argue that on the one hand the statute reaches all possessions and receipts, and on the other hand outlaws only interstate transportations. Even assuming that a person can 'transport' a firearm under the statute without possessing or receiving it, there is no reason consistent with any discernible purpose of the statute to apply an interstate commerce requirement to the 'transports' offense alone.7 In short, the Government has no convincing explanation for the inclusion of the clause 'in commerce or affecting commerce' if that phrase only applies to the word 'transports.' It is far more likely that the phrase was meant to apply to 'possesses' and 'receives' as well as 'transports.' As the court below noted, the inclusion of such a purase 'mirror(s) the approach to federal criminal jurisdiction reflected in many other federal statutes.'8

Nevertheless, the Government argues that its reading is to be preferred because the defendant's narrower interpretation would make Title VII redundant with Title IV of the same Act. Title IV, inter alia, makes it a crime for four categories of people—including those convicted of a crime punishable for a term exceeding one year—'to ship or transport any firearm or ammunition in interstate or foreign commerce . . . (or) to receive any firearm or ammunition which has been shipped or transported in interstate or foreign commerce.' 18 U.S.C. § 922(g) and (h). As Senator Long, the sponsor of Title VII, represented to Senator Dodd, the sponsor of Title IV, Title VII indeed does complement Title IV. 114 Cong.Rec. 14774; see also 114 Cong.Rec. 16286. Respondent's reading of Title VII is fully consistent with this view. First, although subsections of the two Titles do address their prohibitions to some of the same people, each statute also reaches substantial groups of people not reached by the other.9 Secondly, Title VII complements Title IV by punishing a broader class of behavior. Even under respondent's view, a Title VII offense is made out if the firearm was possessed or received 'in commerce or affecting commerce'; however, Title IV apparently does not reach possessions or intrastate transactions at all, even those with an interstate commerce nexus, but is limited to the sending or receiving of firearms as part of an interstate transportation.10

In addition, whatever reading is adopted, Title VII and Title IV are, in part, redundant. The interstate commerce requirement in Title VII minimally applies to transportation. Since Title IV also prohibits convicted criminals from transporting firearms in interstate commerce, the two Titles overlap under both readings. The Government's broader reading of Title VII does not eliminate the redundancy, but simply creates a larger area in which there is no overlap. While the Government would be on stronger ground if its reading were necessary to give Title VII some unique and independent thrust, this is not the case here. In any event, circumstances surrounding the passage of Title VII make plain that Title VII was not carefully molded to complement Title IV. Title VII was a last-minute Senate amendment to the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act. The Amendment was hastily passed, with little discussion, no hearings and no report.11 The notion that it was enacted to dovetail neatly with Title IV rests perhaps on a conception of the model legislative process; but we cannot pretend that all statutes are model statutes. While courts should interpret a statute with an eye to the surrounding statutory landscape and an ear for harmonizing potentially discordant provisions, these guiding principles are not substitutes for congressional lawmaking. In our view, no conclusion can be drawn from Title IV concerning the correct interpretation of Title VII.

Other aspects of the meager legislative history, however, do provide some significant support for the Government's interpretation. On the Senate floor, Senator Long, who introduced § 1202, described various evils that prompted his statute. These evils included assassinations of public figures and threats to the operation of businesses significant enough in the aggregate to affect commerce.12 Such evils, we note, would be most thoroughly mitigated by forbidding every possession of any...

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