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:
The evidence showed that respondent, who had previously been convicted of a felony in New York State, possessed
After his conviction,
Not wishing "to give point to the quip that only when legislative history is doubtful do you go to the statute,"
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 (1920). Since "in commerce or affecting commerce" undeniably
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
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
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
In short, "the legislative history of [the] Act hardly speaks with that clarity of purpose which Congress supposedly furnishes courts in order to enable them to enforce its true will." Universal Camera Corp. v. NLRB, 340 U.S. 474, 483 (1951). Here, as in other cases, the various remarks by legislators "are sufficiently ambiguous insofar as this narrow issue is concerned . . . to invite mutually destructive dialectic," and not much more.
Given this ambiguity, we adopt the narrower reading: the phrase "in commerce or affecting commerce" is part of all three offenses, and the present conviction must be set aside because the Government has failed to show the requisite nexus with interstate commerce. This result is dictated by two wise principles this Court has long followed.
First, as we have recently reaffirmed, "ambiguity concerning the ambit of criminal statutes should be resolved in favor of lenity." Rewis v. United States, 401 U.S. 808, 812 (1971). See also Ladner v. United States, 358 U.S. 169, 177 (1958); Bell v. United States, 349 U.S. 81 (1955); United States v. Five Gambling Devices, 346 U.S. 441 (1953) (plurality opinion for affirmance). In various ways over the years, we have stated that "when choice has to be made between two readings of what conduct Congress has made a crime, it is appropriate, before we choose the harsher alternative, to require that Congress should have spoken in language that is clear and definite." United States v. Universal C. I. T. Credit Corp.,
There is a second principle supporting today's result: unless Congress conveys its purpose clearly, it will not be deemed to have significantly changed the federal-state balance.
Having concluded that the commerce requirement in § 1202 (a) must be read as part of the "possesses" and "receives" offenses, we add a final word about the nexus with interstate commerce that must be shown in individual cases. The Government can obviously meet its burden in a variety of ways. We note only some of these. For example, a person "possesses . . . in commerce or affecting commerce" if at the time of the offense the gun was moving interstate or on an interstate facility, or if the possession affects commerce. Significantly broader in reach, however, is the offense of "receiv[ing] . . . in commerce or affecting commerce," for we conclude that the Government meets its burden here if it demonstrates that the firearm received has previously traveled in interstate commerce.
The judgment is
MR. JUSTICE BRENNAN joins the judgment of the Court and the opinion except for Part III. No question of the quantum of evidence necessary to establish the Government's prima facie case is before the Court and he would await a case properly presenting that question before deciding it.
MR. JUSTICE BLACKMUN, with whom THE CHIEF JUSTICE joins, dissenting.
I cannot join the Court's opinion and judgment. Five of the six United States courts of appeals that have passed upon the issue presented by this case have decided it adversely to the position urged by the respondent here. United States v. Cabbler, 429 F.2d 577 (CA4 1970). cert. denied, 400 U.S. 901; United States v. Mullins,
1. The statute, 18 U. S. C. App. § 1202 (a), when it speaks of one "who receives, possesses, or transports in commerce or affecting commerce," although arguably ambiguous and, as the Government concedes, "not a model of logic or clarity,"
2. The meaning the Court implants on the statute is justified only by the addition and interposition of a comma after the word "transports." I perceive no warrant for this judicial transfiguration.
4. The specific finding in 18 U. S. C. App. § 1201
5. Senator Long's explanatory comments reveal clearly the purpose, the intent, and the extent of the legislation:
One cannot detect in these remarks any purpose to restrict or limit the type of possession that was being considered for proscription.
6. The Court's construction of § 1202 (a), limiting its application to interstate possession and receipt, shrinks the statute into something little more than a duplication of 18 U. S. C. §§ 922 (g) and (h). I cannot ascribe to Congress such a gesture of nonaccomplishment.
I thus conclude that § 1202 (a) was intended to and does reach all possessions and receipts of firearms by convicted felons, and that the Court should move on and decide the constitutional issue present in this case.
"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, or
"(2) has been discharged from the Armed Forces under dishonorable conditions, or
"(3) has been adjudged by a court of the United States or of a State or any political subdivision thereof of being mentally incompetent, or
"(4) having been a citizen of the United States has renounced his citizenship, or
"(5) being an alien is illegally or unlawfully in the United States, and who receives, possesses, or transports in commerce or affecting commerce, after the date of enactment of this Act, any firearm shall be fined not more than $10,000 or imprisoned for not more than two years, or both."
The Government, noting that there is no comma after "transports," argues that the punctuation indicates a congressional intent to limit the qualifying phrase to the last antecedent. But many leading grammarians, while sometimes noting that commas at the end of series can avoid ambiguity, concede that use of such commas is discretionary. See, e. g., B. Evans & C. Evans, A Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage 103 (1957); M. Nicholson, A Dictionary of American-English Usage 94 (1957); R. Copperud, A Dictionary of Usage and Style 94-95 (1964); cf. W. Strunk & E. White, The Elements of Style 1-2 (1959). When grammarians are divided, and surely where they are cheerfully tolerant, we will not attach significance to an omitted comma. It is enough to say that the statute's punctuation is fully consistent with the respondent's interpretation, and that in this case grammatical expertise will not help to clarify the statute's meaning.
Title IV reaches persons "under indictment for, or . . . convicted in any court of, a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year"; fugitives from justice; users or addicts of various drugs; persons adjudicated as "mental defective[s] or . . . committed" to a mental institution. 18 U. S. C. §§ 922 (g) and (h).
"[T]he Act is confined to the receipt of firearms or ammunition as a part of interstate transportation and does not extend to the receipt, in an intrastate transaction, of such articles which, at some prior time, have been transported interstate." Id., at 466.
While the reach of Title IV itself is a question to be decided finally some other day, the Government has presented here no learning or other evidence indicating that the 1968 Act changed the prior approach to the "receipt" offense. See, e. g., S. Rep. No. 1097, 90th Cong., 2d Sess., 115 (1968).
On May 17, 1968, Senator Long introduced on the floor his amendment to S. 917, which he designated Title VII. His introductory remarks set forth the purpose of the amendment. 114 Cong. Rec. 13867-13869. About a week later he explained his amendment once again. There was a brief debate; the reaction was favorable but cautious, with "further thought" and "study" being suggested by several favorably inclined Senators who observed some problems with the bill as drafted. Unexpectedly, however, there was a call for a vote and Title VII passed without modification. See 114 Cong. Rec. 14772-14775. The amendment received only passing mention in the House discussion of the bill, 114 Cong. Rec. 16286, 16298, and never received committee consideration or study in the House either.
"I have prepared an amendment which I will offer at an appropriate time, simply setting forth the fact that anybody who has been convicted of a felony [or comes within certain other categories]. . . is not permitted to possess a firearm . . . ." 114 Cong. Rec. 13868.
"The Congress hereby finds and declares that the receipt, possession, or transportation of a firearm by felons, veterans who are discharged under dishonorable conditions, mental incompetents, aliens who are illegally in the country, and former citizens who have renounced their citizenship, constitutes—
"(1) a burden on commerce or threat affecting the free flow of commerce,
"(2) a threat to the safety of the President of the United States and Vice President of the United States,
"(3) an impediment or a threat to the exercise of free speech and the free exercise of a religion guaranteed by the first amendment to the Constitution of the United States, and
"(4) a threat to the continued and effective operation of the Government of the United States and of the government of each State guaranteed by article IV of the Constitution."
The Government argues that these findings would have been "wholly unnecessary" unless Congress intended to prohibit all receipts and possessions of firearms by felons. But these findings of "burdens" and "threats" simply state Congress' view of the constitutional basis for its power to act; the findings do not tell us how much of Congress' perceived power was in fact invoked. That the findings in fact support a statute broader than the one actually passed is suggested by the fact that "in commerce or affecting commerce" does not appear at all in the introductory clause to the "findings," even though § 1202 (a) contains the phrase and concededly reaches only transportation "in commerce or affecting commerce."
"The Congress hereby finds and declares that the receipt, possession, or transportation of a firearm by felons . . . constitutes—
"(1) a burden on commerce or threat affecting the free flow of commerce . . . ."