Small v. United States

PETITIONER:Gary Sherwood Small
RESPONDENT:United States
LOCATION:Meramec River

DOCKET NO.: 03-750
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit

CITATION: 544 US 385 (2005)
GRANTED: Mar 29, 2004
ARGUED: Nov 03, 2004
DECIDED: Apr 26, 2005

Paul D. Boas – argued the cause for Petitioner
Patricia A. Millett – argued the cause for Respondent

Facts of the case

Federal law made gun possession illegal for any person “convicted in any court” for crimes punishable by more than a year in prison. A Japanese court convicted Gary Sherwood Small for crimes punishable by a prison term longer than one year. Years later a U.S. District Court convicted Small, because of his prior conviction, of illegally possessing a gun. Small appealed and argued the term “convicted in any court” did not include convictions in foreign courts. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against Small.


Federal law made gun possession illegal for any person “convicted in any court” for crimes punishable by more than a year in prison. Does “convicted in any court” include convictions in foreign courts?

Media for Small v. United States

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – November 03, 2004 in Small v. United States

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – April 26, 2005 in Small v. United States

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinion of the Court in Small versus United States will be announced by Justice Breyer.

Stephen G. Breyer:

This case is about a federal firearm statute that makes it a crime for a person to possess a gun if that person has been convicted in any court, those are they keywords, “in any court, of a crime punishable by imprisonment for more than a year.

The legal question before us concerns the scope of the words convicted in any court.

Do those words cover convictions in foreign courts?

The petitioner here for example, Gary Small, was previously convicted of gun smuggling into Japan by a Japanese Court.

Does the statute forbid him subsequently to possess a gun as it would if for example he would previously been convicted of gun smuggling by a court in Maine?

We answered the question no.

We think the words any court do not include foreign courts.

For one thing, the statutory word “any”, though it is certainly a broad word, does not answer the question by itself.

If I say I will go to a film playing at any theater this evening, I am not talking about theaters in Japan.

We have to look to context to find out the answer.

Or another thing, when reading ambiguous statutes, we often start with the common sense notion that Congress legislates with domestic concerns in mind.

That notion cannot decide this case for the gun possession here is domestic.

Small was prosecuted for possessing a gun in the United States but it does argue in favor of the view that Congress thought that the preceding triggering crime would be domestic as well, and that view is further supported by the fact that foreign countries may have criminal laws that are very different from our own substantively different think of economic crimes in the former Soviet Union procedurally different.

Think of systems that downgrade the significance of testimony if it is given by a woman or different in punishments.

Think of systems that punish severely conduct that we would treat as simply minor.

To import all such convictions into this statute would leave judges with a difficult case by case task of distinguishing among different foreign laws and leave some Americans, say recent immigrants from some of those countries, uncertain as to whether they could or could not buy guns.

We consequently begin with a domestic only assumption, but we use this assumption simply as a kind of tiebreaker if congressional intent in the matter is difficult to discern.

Finally, we have gone through all the other indications and we cannot get one place to the other.

We do not find anything that tells us what Congress really intended.

The language of the statute says nothing.

Indeed, if we were to apply that statute to foreign convictions, it would produce, because of the language, a number of anomalies that otherwise would be absent.

The legislative history of the statute tells us nothing.

It is silent on the matter.

Now, the purpose of the statute keeping guns out of the hands of dangerous persons does tell us a little.

Indeed, it argues against our conclusion but it tells us too little.

That is because the government says that in the nearly 40 years this statute has been on the books, there have been no more than 10 to a dozen cases involving convictions entered in foreign courts.

So, applying the statute to domestic only convictions cannot make much practical difference.

We conclude, using our tiebreaker, that in all likelihood, Congress simply did not think about the matter.

So, with the tiebreaker, we decide against foreign application of the phrase “any court”, though Congress of course remains free to amend the statute.

Stephen G. Breyer:

For these and other reasons discussed in the opinion, we reverse the judgment of the Third Circuit and we remand for further proceedings.

Justice Thomas has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justice Scalia and Justice Kennedy join.

The Chief Justice took no part in the decision of this case.