MR. JUSTICE MARSHALL delivered the opinion of the Court.
Petitioner was convicted of possessing a firearm in violation of Title VII of the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets
The issue in this case is whether proof that the possessed firearm previously traveled in interstate commerce is sufficient to satisfy the statutorily required nexus between the possession of a firearm by a convicted felon and commerce.
In 1972 petitioner pleaded guilty in the Circuit Court of Fairfax County, Va., to the felony of possession of narcotics with intent to distribute. A year later, in August 1973, law
In a jury trial in the Eastern District of Virginia, the Government offered evidence to show that all of the seized weapons had traveled in interstate commerce. All the dates established for such interstate travel were prior to the date petitioner became a convicted felon.
Petitioner's defense to the possession charge was twofold. As a matter of fact, he contended that by the time of his conviction he no longer possessed the firearms. His claim was that, to avoid violating this statute, he had transferred these guns to his wife prior to pleading guilty to the narcotics felony. Secondly, he argued that, as a matter of law, proof that the
The judge rejected this instruction. Instead he informed the jury:
Petitioner was found guilty and he appealed. The Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed. 539 F.2d 331. It held that the interstate commerce nexus requirement of the possession offense was satisfied by proof that the firearm petitioner possessed had previously traveled in interstate commerce.
Our first encounter with Title VII of the Omnibus Crime Control Act came in United States v. Bass, 404 U.S. 336 (1971). There we had to decide whether the statutory phrase "in commerce or affecting commerce" in § 1202 (a) applied to "possesses" and "receives" as well as to "transports." We noted that the statute was not a model of clarity. On the one hand, we found "significant support" in the legislative history for the contention that the statute "reaches the mere possession of guns without any showing of an interstate commerce nexus" in individual cases. 404 U. S., at 345-346. On the other hand, we could not ignore Congress' inserting the phrase "in commerce or affecting commerce" in the statute. Id., at 345. The phrase clearly modified "transport"
It was unnecessary in Bass for us to decide what would constitute an adequate nexus with commerce as the Government had made no attempt to show any nexus at all. While we did suggest some possibilities,
The Government's position is that to establish a nexus with interstate commerce it need prove only that the firearm possessed by the convicted felon traveled at some time in interstate commerce. The petitioner contends, however, that the nexus must be "contemporaneous" with the possession, that the statute proscribes "only crimes with a present connection to commerce." Brief for Petitioner 9. He suggests that at the time of the offense the possessor must be engaging
In our effort to resolve the dispute, we turn first to the text of the statute. Petitioner contends that the meaning can be readily determined from the face of the statute, at least when it is contrasted with Title IV of the Omnibus Crime Control Act, another title dealing with gun control.
The essential difficulty with this argument is that it is not very meaningful to compare Title VII with Title IV. See Bass, 404 U. S., at 344. Title VII was a last-minute amendment to the Omnibus Crime Control Act enacted hastily with little discussion and no hearings.
In the present case, by contrast, Congress' choice of language was ambiguous at best. While it is true that Congress did not choose the precise language used in § 922 (h) to indicate that a present nexus with commerce is not required, neither did it use the language of § 922 (j) to indicate that the gun must have a contemporaneous connection with commerce at the time of the offense. Thus, while petitioner is correct
While Congress' choice of tenses is not very revealing, its findings and its inclusion of the phrase "affecting commerce" are somewhat more helpful. In the findings at the beginning of Title VII, Congress expressly declared that "the receipt, possession, or transportation of a firearm by felons . . . constitutes. . . a burden on commerce or threat affecting the free flow of commerce," 18 U. S. C. App. § 1201 (1).
The legislative history in its entirety, while brief, further supports the view that Congress sought to rule broadly—to keep guns out of the hands of those who have demonstrated that "they may not be trusted to possess a firearm without becoming a threat to society." Id., at 14773. There is simply no indication of any concern with either the movement of the gun or the possessor or with the time of acquisition.
In introducing the amendment, Senator Long stated:
The purpose of the amendment was to complement Title IV. Id., at 14774; see also id., at 16286. Senator Long noted:
The intent to outlaw possession without regard to movement and to apply it to a case such as petitioner's could not have been more clearly revealed than in a colloquy between Senators Long and McClellan:
It was after this colloquy that Senator McClellan suggested that the amendment be taken to conference for "further thought." Ibid. While that appeared to be its destination, the House, after Senate passage of the bill, defeated a motion to go to conference and adopted the entire Senate bill, including Title VII, without alteration. Id., at 16077-16078, 16299-16300. Title VII thus became law without modification.
Initially, we note our difficulty in fully comprehending petitioner's conception of a nexus with commerce. In his view, if an individual purchases a gun before his conviction, the fact that the gun once traveled in commerce does not provide an adequate nexus. It is necessary, in addition, that the person also carry it in an interstate facility. If, however, one purchases the same gun from the same dealer one day after the conviction as opposed to one day before, somehow the nexus magically appears, regardless of whether the purchaser carries the gun in any particular place. Such an interpretation strains credulity. We find no evidence in either the language or the legislative history for such a construction.
Petitioner responds that the Government's reading of the statute fails to give effect to all three terms of the statute— receive, possess, transport. He argues that someone guilty of receipt or transport will necessarily be guilty of possession and that, therefore, there was no need to include the other two offenses in the statute. While this contention is not frivolous,
Finally, petitioner seeks to invoke the two principles of statutory construction relied on in Bass—lenity in construing criminal statutes and caution where the federal-state balance is implicated. Petitioner, however, overlooks the fact that we did not turn to these guides in Bass until we had concluded that "[a]fter `seizing every thing from which aid can be derived,' . . . we are left with an ambiguous statute." 404 U. S., at 347. The principles are applicable only when we are uncertain about the statute's meaning and are not to be used "in complete disregard of the purpose of the legislature." United States v. Bramblett, 348 U.S. 503, 510 (1955). Here, the intent of Congress is clear. We do not face the conflicting pull between the text and the history that confronted us in Bass. In this case, the history is unambiguous and the text consistent with it. Congress sought to reach possessions broadly, with little concern for when the nexus with commerce occurred. Indeed, it was a close question in Bass whether § 1202 (a) even required proof of any nexus at all in individual cases. The only reason we concluded it did was because it was not "plainly and unmistakably" clear that it did not. 404 U. S., at 348. But there is no question that Congress intended no more than a minimal nexus requirement.
It is so ordered.
MR. JUSTICE REHNQUIST took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.
MR. JUSTICE STEWART, dissenting.
So far as the record reflects, the petitioner in this case acquired the four weapons in question before he was convicted of a felony in August 1972. Until that time, his possession of the guns was entirely legal under federal law. Under the Court's construction of 18 U. S. C. App. § 1202 (a) (1), however, the petitioner was automatically guilty of a serious federal criminal offense at the moment he was convicted in the state felony case. This result is in my view inconsistent with the time-honored rule of lenity in construing federal criminal statutes. See, e. g., Rewis v. United States, 401 U.S. 808, 812; Ladner v. United States, 358 U.S. 169, 177-178; Bell v. United States, 349 U.S. 81, 83; United States v. Universal C. I. T. Credit Corp., 344 U.S. 218, 221-222. I would hold that § 1202 (a) (1) does not come into play unless and until a person first comes into possession of a firearm after he is convicted of a felony.
The language of § 1202 (a) (1) does not compel the construction that the Court adopts. The statute covers "[a]ny person who . . . has been convicted . . . of a felony . . . and who receives, possesses, or transports . . . any firearm. . . ." Plainly the acts of receiving and transporting are prohibited only if they occur after the defendant's conviction. The language does not indicate, however, whether the illegal possession must also first begin after conviction, or whether a prior possession becomes illegal at the moment the possessor is adjudged guilty of a felony. And, as the Court observes, ante, at 576-577, any reading of the statute makes
The legislative history does not provide much help. There are statements suggesting that Congress meant to proscribe any possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. Other statements, however, intimate that the statute's purpose was to prevent a convicted felon from coming into possession of a weapon after his conviction. For instance, Senator Long, the drafter and sponsor of § 1202, stated that the statute "places the burden and the punishment on the kind of people who have no business possessing firearms in the event they come into possession of them." 114 Cong. Rec. 13869 (1968). Later he added that § 1202 (a) "would deny every assassin, murderer, thief and burglar . . . the right to possess a firearm in the future . . . ." 114 Cong. Rec. 14773.
In short, I disagree with the Court that the scope of § 1202 (a) is so crystal clear that there is no room for the operation of the rule of lenity. In my view, we are under no mandate to construe this statute so that a person in lawful possession of a firearm, and presumed to be innocent of a felony until proved guilty, must upon his conviction of a felony also be automatically and instantly guilty of a wholly different serious criminal offense.
Since the petitioner in this case came into possession of the firearms before he was convicted of any felony, I would hold that he did not violate § 1202 (a) (1). Accordingly, I respectfully dissent from the opinion and judgment of the Court.
"(a) 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, "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."
"Congressional findings and declaration.
"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."