Caron v. United States

PETITIONER: Caron
RESPONDENT: United States
LOCATION: The White House

DOCKET NO.: 97-6270
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit

CITATION: 524 US 308 (1998)
ARGUED: Apr 21, 1998
DECIDED: Jun 22, 1998

ADVOCATES:
Jonathan E. Nuechterlein - Department of Justice, argued the cause for the respondent
Owen S. Walker - Argued the cause for the petitioner

Facts of the case

18 USC section 922(g)(1) forbids a person convicted of a serious offense to possess any firearm. Section 924(e) requires that a three-time violent felon who violates section 922(g)(1) receive an enhanced sentence. Section 921(a)(20) provides that a previous conviction is not a predicate for the substantive offense or the enhanced sentence if the offender's civil rights have been restored, "unless such... restoration... expressly provides that the person may not... possess... firearms." In 1993, Gerald Caron was convicted of possessing six rifles and shotguns in violation of section 922(g). The District Court enhanced Caron's sentence based, in part, on three Massachusetts convictions. In vacating his sentence, the Court of Appeals concluded that a Massachusetts law that permitted Caron to possess rifles, but not handguns, had restored his civil rights. On remand, the District Court found that, because Massachusetts law allowed Caron to possess rifles, section 921(a)(20)'s "unless clause" was not activated. The Court of Appeals reversed.

Question

Does 18 USC section 922(g)(1), which forbids felons from possessing firearms and enhances their sentences for a violation, apply to a felon who is allowed under state law to possess rifles and shotguns but not handguns?

Media for Caron v. United States

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - April 21, 1998 in Caron v. United States

William H. Rehnquist:

We'll hear argument next in Number 97-6270, Gerald Caron v. The United States.

Spectators are admonished do not talk until you get out of the courtroom.

The Court remains in session.

We will wait just a minute, Mr. Walker.

Owen S. Walker:

Thank you.

William H. Rehnquist:

Mr. Walker.

Owen S. Walker:

Mr. Chief Justice and may it please the Court:

If a person is pardoned or has civil rights restored, the statute at issue says his conviction is considered a predicate conviction under Federal firearms law only if the pardon or restoration of rights expressly provides that he may not ship, transport, possess, or receive firearms.

My client's... when my client's rights were restored, Massachusetts law told him that he could possess rifles and shotguns and, indeed, possess a handgun in his home.

He's now serving an additional 12 years on his sentence for possessing the very firearms that Massachusetts law told him that he could possess.

We say it's self-evident that the statute... that it cannot be said that Massachusetts expressly provides that he could not ship, transport, possess, or receive firearms.

Antonin Scalia:

Of course, if we accept your interpretation of the law it wouldn't matter that the firearms he had were the kind that Massachusetts allows him to have.

Even if he had the kind that Massachusetts didn't allow him to have he would not be subject to this provision of the statute.

Owen S. Walker:

That is the... what the statute literally says, and it is the... we contend the only literal reading of the statute.

If the Court chooses to follow that literal reading, that is fine as far as my client is concerned.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

What is the literal reading?

Would you go through that again?

Owen S. Walker:

The literal reading is that if the... a conviction... if a pardon says... only if a pardon says you can have no firearms, only if a pardon says no firearms can the conviction be considered a conviction.

This is... he was not told no firearms.

He was told a lot of firearms, indeed, most firearms, and--

Stephen G. Breyer:

He wasn't pardoned, was he?

Owen S. Walker:

--I beg your pardon?

Stephen G. Breyer:

Was he pardoned?

Owen S. Walker:

No.

His situation is a restoration of civil rights, Your Honor, but the analysis is the same.

The so-called--

Stephen G. Breyer:

That's where I'm having trouble, because I read this statute... I'd always thought that a felon in possession of a gun was committing a Federal crime.

Then when I read this statute, the words civil rights restored, I discovered that 24 States restore civil rights virtually automatically, so in half the country it isn't a crime, unless, of course, in those States, and they are a random set thereof, that have some other gun law of their own for their own felons.

And so we have about... I found about, like 11 or 12 of them anyway that seem to say, your rights are restored automatically, they're never taken away, as soon as you get out of prison, and by the way, you can have guns, so there, I guess, there is no such law.

And then another set, about 11 say you can have some guns and not other guns, and I guess that's what we have here, right?