Justice Stevens, delivered the opinion of the Court.
Petitioner was convicted of "willfully" dealing in firearms without a federal license. The question presented is whether the term "willfully" in 18 U. S. C. § 924(a)(1)(D) requires proof that the defendant knew that his conduct was unlawful, or whether it also requires proof that he knew of the federal licensing requirement.
In 1968 Congress enacted the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act. 82 Stat. 197-239. In Title IV of that Act Congress made findings concerning the impact of the traffic in firearms on the prevalence of lawlessness and violent crime in the United States
In 1986 Congress enacted the Firearms Owners' Protection Act (FOPA), in part, to cure these omissions. The findings in that statute explained that additional legislation was necessary to protect law-abiding citizens with respect to the acquisition, possession, or use of firearms for lawful purposes.
The jury having found petitioner guilty, we accept the Government's version of the evidence. That evidence proved that petitioner did not have a federal license to deal in firearms; that he used so-called "straw purchasers" in Ohio to acquire pistols that he could not have purchased himself; that the straw purchasers made false statements when purchasing the guns; that petitioner assured the straw purchasers that he would file the serial numbers off the guns; and that he resold the guns on Brooklyn street corners known for drug dealing. The evidence was unquestionably adequate to prove that petitioner was dealing in firearms, and that he knew that his conduct was unlawful.
Petitioner was charged with a conspiracy to violate 18 U. S. C. § 922(a)(1)(A), by willfully engaging in the business of dealing in firearms, and with a substantive violation of that provision.
Petitioner was found guilty on both counts. On appeal he argued that the evidence was insufficient because there was no proof that he had knowledge of the federal licensing requirement, and that the trial judge had erred by failing to instruct the jury that such knowledge was an essential element of the offense. The Court of Appeals affirmed. 122 F.3d 90 (CA2 1997). It concluded that the instructions were proper and that the Government had elicited "ample proof" that petitioner had acted willfully. App. 22.
Because the Eleventh Circuit has held that it is necessary for the Government to prove that the defendant acted with knowledge of the licensing requirement, United States v. Sanchez-Corcino, 85 F.3d 549, 553-554 (1996), we granted certiorari to resolve the conflict. 522 U.S. 1024 (1997).
The word "willfully" is sometimes said to be "a word of many meanings" whose construction is often dependent on the context in which it appears. See, e. g., Spies v. United States, 317 U.S. 492, 497 (1943). Most obviously it differentiates between deliberate and unwitting conduct, but in the criminal law it also typically refers to a culpable state of mind. As we explained in United States v. Murdock, 290 U.S. 389 (1933), a variety of phrases have been used to describe that concept.
Petitioner argues that a more particularized showing is required in this case for two principal reasons. First, he argues that the fact that Congress used the adverb "knowingly" to authorize punishment of three categories of acts made unlawful by § 922 and the word "willfully" when it referred to unlicensed dealing in firearms demonstrates that the Government must shoulder a special burden in cases like this. This argument is not persuasive because the term "knowingly" does not necessarily have any reference to a culpable state of mind or to knowledge of the law. As Justice Jackson correctly observed, "the knowledge requisite to knowing violation of a statute is factual knowledge as distinguished from knowledge of the law."
With respect to the three categories of conduct that are made punishable by § 924 if performed "knowingly," the background presumption that every citizen knows the law makes it unnecessary to adduce specific evidence to prove that "an evil-meaning mind" directed the "evil-doing hand."
Petitioner next argues that we must read § 924(a)(1)(D) to require knowledge of the law because of our interpretation
Petitioner advances a number of additional arguments based on his reading of congressional intent. Petitioner first points to the legislative history of FOPA, but that history is too ambiguous to offer petitioner much assistance. Petitioner's main support lies in statements made by opponents of the bill.
Petitioner next argues that, at the time FOPA was passed, the "willfulness" requirements in other subsections of the statute—§§ 923(d)(1)(C)—(D)—had uniformly been interpreted by lower courts to require knowledge of the law; petitioner argues that Congress intended that "willfully" should have the same meaning in § 924(a)(1)(D). As an initial matter, the lower courts had come to no such agreement. While some courts had stated that willfulness in § 923(d)(1) is satisfied
Finally, petitioner argues that § 922(b)(3), which is governed by § 924(a)(1)(D)'s willfulness standard, indicates that Congress intended "willfully" to include knowledge of the law. Section 922(b)(3) prohibits licensees from selling firearms to any person who the licensee knows or has reasonable cause to believe does not reside in the licensee's State, except where, inter alia, the transaction fully complies with the laws of both the seller's and buyer's State. The subsection further states that the licensee "shall be presumed, . . . in the absence of evidence to the contrary, to have had actual knowledge of the State laws and published ordinances of both States."
One sentence in the trial court's instructions to the jury, read by itself, contained a misstatement of the law. In a portion of the instructions that were given after the correct statement that we have already quoted, the judge stated: "In this case, the government is not required to prove that the defendant knew that a license was required, nor is the government required to prove that he had knowledge that he was breaking the law. " App. 19 (emphasis added). If the judge had added the words "that required a license," the sentence would have been accurate, but as given it was not.
Nevertheless, that error does not provide a basis for reversal for four reasons. First, petitioner did not object to that sentence, except insofar as he had argued that the jury should have been instructed that the Government had the burden of proving that he had knowledge of the federal licensing requirement. Second, in the context of the entire instructions, it seems unlikely that the jury was misled. See, e. g., United States v. Park, 421 U.S. 658, 674-675 (1975). Third, petitioner failed to raise this argument in the Court of Appeals. Finally, our grant of certiorari was limited to
Accordingly, the judgment of the Court of Appeals is affirmed.
It is so ordered.
Justice Souter, concurring.
I join in the Court's opinion with the caveat that if petitioner had raised and preserved a specific objection to the erroneous statement in the jury instructions, see Part V, ante, at 199 and this page, I would vote to vacate the conviction.
Justice Scalia, with whom The Chief Justice and Justice Ginsburg join, dissenting.
Petitioner Sillasse Bryan was convicted of "willfully" violating the federal licensing requirement for firearms dealers. The jury apparently found, and the evidence clearly shows, that Bryan was aware in a general way that some aspect of his conduct was unlawful. See ante, at 189, and n. 8. The issue is whether that general knowledge of illegality is enough to sustain the conviction, or whether a "willful" violation of the licensing provision requires proof that the defendant knew that his conduct was unlawful specifically because he lacked the necessary license. On that point the statute is, in my view, genuinely ambiguous. Most of the Court's opinion is devoted to confirming half of that ambiguity by refuting Bryan's various arguments that the statute clearly requires specific knowledge of the licensing requirement. Ante, at 192-199. The Court offers no real justification for its implicit conclusion that either (1) the statute unambiguously requires only general knowledge of illegality, or (2) ambiguously requiring only general knowledge is enough. Instead, the Court curiously falls back on "the traditional rule that ignorance of the law is no excuse" to conclude that "knowledge that the conduct is unlawful is all that is required." Ante, at 196. In my view, this case calls for the application of a different canon—"the familiar rule that, `where there is
Title 18 U. S. C. § 922(a)(1)(A) makes it unlawful for any person to engage in the business of dealing in firearms without a federal license. That provision is enforced criminally through § 924(a)(1)(D), which imposes criminal penalties on whoever "willfully violates any other provision of this chapter." The word "willfully" has a wide range of meanings, and "`its construction [is] often . . . influenced by its context.' " Ratzlaf v. United States, 510 U.S. 135, 141 (1994), quoting Spies v. United States, 317 U.S. 492, 497 (1943). In some contexts it connotes nothing more than "an act which is intentional, or knowing, or voluntary, as distinguished from accidental." United States v. Murdock, 290 U.S. 389, 394 (1933). In the present context, however, inasmuch as the preceding three subparagraphs of § 924 specify a mens rea of "knowingly" for other firearms offenses, see §§ 924(a)(1)(A)—(C), a "willful" violation under § 924(a)(1)(D) must require some mental state more culpable than mere intent to perform the forbidden act. The United States concedes (and the Court apparently agrees) that the violation is not "willful" unless the defendant knows in a general way that his conduct is unlawful. Brief for United States 7-9; ante, at 193 ("The jury must find that the defendant acted with an evil-meaning mind, that is to say, that he acted with knowledge that his conduct was unlawful").
That concession takes this case beyond any useful application of the maxim that ignorance of the law is no excuse. Everyone agrees that § 924(a)(1)(D) requires some knowledge of the law; the only real question is which law? The Court's answer is that knowledge of any law is enough—or, put another way, that the defendant must be ignorant of every law violated by his course of conduct to be innocent of willfully violating the licensing requirement. The Court points to no
I do not believe that the Court's approach makes sense of the statute that Congress enacted. I have no quarrel with the Court's assertion that "willfully" in § 924(a)(1)(D) requires only "general" knowledge of illegality—in the sense that the defendant need not be able to recite chapter and verse from Title 18 of the United States Code. It is enough, in my view, if the defendant is generally aware that the actus reus punished by the statute—dealing in firearms without a license—is illegal. But the Court is willing to accept a mens rea so "general" that it is entirely divorced from the actus reus this statute was enacted to punish. That approach turns § 924(a)(1)(D) into a strange and unlikely creature. Bryan would be guilty of "willfully" dealing in firearms without a federal license even if, for example, he had never heard of the licensing requirement but was aware that he had violated the law by using straw purchasers or filing the serial numbers off the pistols. Ante, at 189, n. 8. The Court does not even limit (for there is no rational basis to limit) the universe of relevant laws to federal firearms statutes. Bryan would also be "act[ing] with an evil-meaning mind," and hence presumably be guilty of "willfully" dealing in firearms without a license, if he knew that his streetcorner transactions violated New York City's business licensing or sales tax ordinances. (For that matter, it ought to suffice if Bryan knew that the car out of which he sold the guns was illegally double-parked, or if, in order to meet the appointed time for the sale, he intentionally violated Pennsylvania's speed limit on the drive back from the gun purchase in Ohio.) Once we stop focusing on the conduct the defendant is actually charged with (i. e., selling guns without
Congress is free, of course, to make criminal liability under one statute turn on knowledge of another, to use its firearms dealer statutes to encourage compliance with New York City's tax collection efforts, and to put judges and juries through the kind of mental gymnastics described above. But these are strange results, and I would not lightly assume that Congress intended to make liability under a federal criminal statute depend so heavily upon the vagaries of local law—particularly local law dealing with completely unrelated subjects. If we must have a presumption in cases like this one, I think it would be more reasonable to presume that, when Congress makes ignorance of the law a defense to a criminal prohibition, it ordinarily means ignorance of the unlawfulness of the specific conduct punished by that criminal prohibition.
That is the meaning we have given the word "willfully" in other contexts where we have concluded it requires knowledge of the law. See, e. g., Ratzlaf, supra, at 149 ("To convict Ratzlaf of the crime with which he was charged, . . . the jury had to find he knew the structuring in which he engaged was unlawful"); Cheek v. United States, 498 U.S. 192, 201 (1991) ("[T]he standard for the statutory willfulness requirement is the `voluntary, intentional violation of a known legal duty.' . . . [T]he issue is whether the defendant knew of the duty purportedly imposed by the provision of the statute or regulation he is accused of violating"). The Court explains these cases on the ground that they involved "highly technical statutes that presented the danger of ensnaring individuals engaged in apparently innocent conduct." Ante, at 194. That is no explanation at all. The complexity of the tax and currency laws may explain why the Court interpreted
It seems to me likely that Congress had a presumption of offense-specific knowledge of illegality in mind when it enacted the provision here at issue. Another section of the Firearms Owners' Protection Act, Pub. L. 99-308, 100 Stat. 449, prohibits licensed dealers from selling firearms to outof-state residents unless they fully comply with the laws of both States. 18 U. S. C. § 922(b)(3). The provision goes on to state that all licensed dealers "shall be presumed, for purposes of this subparagraph, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, to have had actual knowledge of the State laws and published ordinances of both States." Ibid. Like the dealer-licensing provision at issue here, a violation of § 922(b)(3) is a criminal offense only if committed "willfully" within the meaning of § 924(a)(1)(D). The Court is quite correct that this provision does not establish beyond doubt that "willfully" requires knowledge of the particular prohibitions violated: the fact that knowledge (attributed knowledge) of those prohibitions will be sufficient does not demonstrate conclusively that knowledge of other prohibitions will not be sufficient. Ante, at 198-199. But though it does not demonstrate, it certainly suggests. To say that only willful violation of a certain law is criminal, but that knowledge of the existence of that law is presumed, fairly reflects, I think, a
If one had to choose, therefore, I think a presumption of statutory intent that is the opposite of the one the Court applies would be more reasonable. I would not, however, decide this case on the basis of any presumption at all. It is common ground that the statutory context here requires some awareness of the law for a § 924(a)(1)(D) conviction, but the statute is simply ambiguous, or silent, as to the precise contours of that mens rea requirement. In the face of that ambiguity, I would invoke the rule that "`ambiguity concerning the ambit of criminal statutes should be resolved in favor of lenity,' " United States v. Bass, 404 U. S., at 347, quoting Rewis v. United States, 401 U.S. 808, 812 (1971).
In our era of multiplying new federal crimes, there is more reason than ever to give this ancient canon of construction consistent application: by fostering uniformity in the interpretation of criminal statutes, it will reduce the occasions on which this Court will have to produce judicial havoc by resolving in defendants' favor a Circuit conflict regarding the substantive elements of a federal crime, see, e. g., Bousley v. United States, 523 U.S. 614 (1998).
I respectfully dissent.
"(1) that there is a widespread traffic in firearms moving in or otherwise affecting interstate or foreign commerce, and that the existing Federal controls over such traffic do not adequately enable the States to control this traffic within their own borders through the exercise of their police power;
"(2) that the ease with which any person can acquire firearms other than a rifle or shotgun (including criminals, juveniles without the knowledge or consent of their parents or guardians, narcotics addicts, mental defectives, armed groups who would supplant the functions of duly constituted public authorities, and others whose possession of such weapons is similarly contrary to the public interest) is a significant factor in the prevalence of lawlessness and violent crime in the United States;
"(3) that only through adequate Federal control over interstate and foreign commerce in these weapons, and over all persons engaging in the businesses of importing, manufacturing, or dealing in them, can this grave problem be properly dealt with, and effective State and local regulation of this traffic be made possible . . . ."82 Stat. 225.
"(a) It shall be unlawful—
"(1) for any person—
"(A) except a licensed importer, licensed manufacturer, or licensed dealer, to engage in the business of importing, manufacturing, or dealing in firearms, or in the course of such business to ship, transport, or receive any firearm in interstate or foreign commerce."
"(a) Whoever violates any provision of this chapter .. .shall be fined not more than $5,000 or imprisoned not more than five years, or both." 82 Stat. 233.
. . . . .
"(b)(2) additional legislation is required to reaffirm the intent of the Congress, as expressed in section 101 of the Gun Control Act of 1968, that `it is not the purpose of this title to place any undue or unnecessary Federal restrictions or burdens on law-abiding citizens with respect to the acquisition, possession, or use of firearms appropriate to the purpose of hunting, trapshooting, target shooting, personal protection, or any other lawful activity, and that this title is not intended to discourage or eliminate the private ownership or use of firearms by law-abiding citizens for lawful purposes.' " 100 Stat. 449.
. . . . .
"(21) The term `engaged in the business' means—
. . . . .
"(C) as applied to a dealer in firearms, as defined in section 921 (a)(11)(A), a person who devotes time, attention, and labor to dealing in firearms as a regular course of trade or business with the principal objective of livelihood and profit through the repetitive purchase and resale of firearms, but such term shall not include a person who makes occasional sales, exchanges, or purchases of firearms for the enhancement of a personal collection or for a hobby, or who sells all or part of his personal collection of firearms . . . ." 100 Stat. 449-450.
"Except as otherwise provided in this subsection, subsection (b), (c), or (f) of this section, or in section 929, whoever—
"(A) knowingly makes any false statement or representation with respect to the information required by this chapter to be kept in the records of a person licensed under this chapter or in applying for any license or exemption or relief from disability under the provisions of this chapter;
"(B) knowingly violates subsection (a)(4), (f), (k), (r), (v), or (w) of section 922;
"(C) knowingly imports or brings into the United States or any possession there of any firearm or ammunition inviolation of section 922(l );or
"The Federal Firearms Statute which the Defendant is charged with, conspiracy to violate and with allegedly violated [sic], is a specific intent statute. You must accordingly find, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Defendant at all relevant times charged, acted with the knowledge that it was unlawful to engage in the business of firearms distribution lawfully purchased by a legally permissible transferee or gun purchaser.
. . . . .
"[Y]ou must be persuaded that with the actual knowledge of the federal firearms licensing laws Defendant acted in knowing and intentional violation of them." App. 17 (citing Ratzlaf v. United States, 510 U.S. 135 (1994)).
"It is further suggested that a defendant is protected against indefiniteness because conviction is authorized only for knowing violations. The argument seems to be that the jury can find that defendant knowingly violated the regulation only if it finds that it knew the meaning of the regulation he was accused of violating. With the exception of Screws v. United States, 325 U.S. 91, which rests on a very particularized basis, the knowledge requisite to knowing violation of a statute is factual knowledge as distinguished from knowledge of the law. I do not suppose the Court intends to suggest that if petitioner knew nothing of the existence of such a regulation its ignorance would constitute a defense." Boyce Motor Lines, Inc. v. United States, 342 U.S. 337, 345 (1952).
"The proliferation of statutes and regulations has sometimes made it difficult for the average citizen to know and comprehend the extent of the duties and obligations imposed by the tax laws. Congress has accordingly softened the impact of the common-law presumption by making specific intent to violate the law an element of certain federal criminal tax offenses. Thus, the Court almost 60 years ago interpreted the statutory term `willfully' as used in the federal criminal tax statutes as carving out an exception to the traditional rule [that every person is presumed to know the law]. This special treatment of criminal tax offenses is largely due to the complexity of the tax laws."
"I believe that criminal prosecutions for `currency law' violations, of the sort at issue here, very much resemble criminal prosecutions for tax law violations. Compare 26 U. S. C. §§ 6050I, 7203 with 31 U. S. C. §§ 5322, 5324. Both sets of laws are technical; and both sets of laws sometimes criminalize conduct that would not strike an ordinary citizen as immoral or likely unlawful. Thus, both sets of laws may lead to the unfair result of criminally prosecuting individuals who subjectively and honestly believe they have not acted criminally. Cheek v. United States, 498 U.S. 192 . . . (1991), sets forth a legal standard that, by requiring proof that the defendant was subjectively aware of the duty at issue, would avoid such unfair results." United States v. Aversa, 984 F.2d 493, 502 (CA1 1993) (concurring opinion). He therefore concluded that the "same standards should apply in both" the tax cases and in cases such as Ratzlaf. 984 F. 2d, at 503.
"The uncontroverted evidence shows clearly that plaintiff was aware of the above holding period requirements. Mr. Mayesh had been previously advised on the requirements under Illinois law, and he clearly acknowledged that he was aware of them. . . . Since the material facts are undisputed, as a matter of law the plaintiff clearly and knowingly violated the Illinois holding provisions . . . , andhence, 18 U. S. C. § 922(b)(2). This court can only consider such action to have been `wilful' as a matter of law. There is no basis for trial of any disputed facts in this connection. This is sufficient to justify refusal of license renewal." 58 F. R. D., at 540. See also, e. g., Perri, 637 F. 2d, at 1336 (stating that when a dealer understands the requirements of the law, but knowingly fails to follow them or is indifferent to them, willfulness "is established," i. e., is satisfied); Stein's, 649 F. 2d, at 468 ("Evidence of repeated violations with knowledge of the law's requirements has been held sufficient to establish willfulness" (emphasis added)); McLemore, 317 F. Supp., at 1078-1079.
"We . . . see no reason why the word `regulations' [or the phrase `any other provision of this chapter'] should not be construed as a shorthand designation for specific acts or omissions which violate the Act. The Act, so viewed, does not signal an exception to the rule that ignorance of the law is no excuse . . . ." Id., at 562.