U.S.A. –-(Ammoland.com)- In 1938, Congress, for the first time, created categories of people who could not legally possess firearms under federal law. In 1968, those categories were expanded. In 1986, under pressure from gun owners and the National Rifle Association, the law was reformed, so a person had to know they were in violation in order to be prosecuted. On 23 June 2019, the Supreme Court upheld the reform in the 1986 law.
Prosecution normally requires a person to know they are committing a crime, or that they are doing something wrong. From the decision:
As this Court has explained, the understanding that an injury is criminal only if inflicted knowingly “is as universal and persistent in mature systems of law as belief in freedom of the human will and a consequent ability and duty of the normal individual to choose between good and evil.”
The phrase “ignorance of the law is no excuse” does not refer to acts where an ordinary person would believe they were engaged in innocent conduct. The phrase means a person does not have to be a legal scholar to break the law knowingly. People are expected to research the law if they are knowingly acting in areas that could reasonably be expected to be constrained by law. It has been perverted to mean a person can be convicted of crimes they committed without criminal or wrongful intent. There are few such cases; they are the exception, not the rule. They more commonly apply where penalties are much lower than a felony conviction and ten years in prison, such as exists in the firearms law.
In this particular case, whether this defendant knew he was a prohibited possessor was irrelevant to the Supreme Court opinion. The point the Court addressed was: In the jury instructions, the judge held it was not necessary for the defendant to know he was a prohibited possessor.
The Supreme Court held that a prohibited possessor must know their status in order to be prosecuted. Because the jurors decide whether a person is guilty, they must decide if the person knew they were a prohibited possessor. From supremecourt.gov:
Held: In a prosecution under §922(g) and §924(a)(2), the Government must prove both that the defendant knew he possessed a firearm and that he knew he belonged to the relevant category of persons barred from possessing a firearm. Pp. 3–12.(a) Whether a criminal statute requires the Government to prove that the defendant acted knowingly is a question of congressional intent. This inquiry starts from a longstanding presumption that Congress intends to require a defendant to possess a culpable mental state regarding “each of the statutory elements that criminalize otherwise innocent conduct,” United States v. X-Citement Video, Inc., 513 U. S. 64, 72, normally characterized as a presumption in favor of “scienter.” There is no convincing reason to depart from this presumption here.
Possession of firearms is presumptively lawful. Possession is unlawful only in specific, particular; circumstances passed into law. The prosecutorial requirement for a person to know they committed a crime of unlawful possession of firearms is particularly important given the Second Amendment of the Constitution.
When a person who lawfully possessed a firearm is made into a felon by a change in law or interpretation of the statute, it would be an abomination to the rule of the law if they could be convicted without knowing their status had changed. There are many people who fall into this category.
People who pled guilty to misdemeanor convictions for various charges, resulting from something as simple as a domestic argument, became prohibited possessors when those with “domestic violence convictions” were added to the list of prohibited possessors. The charges of many were resolved decades before the law was changed. Numerous people were transformed into prohibited possessors without their knowledge.
Many people with misdemeanor convictions were and are transformed into prohibited possessors by law, when the sentences for those crimes were changed to longer terms, making them felonies under the federal definition of a felony.
Many people presumed they pled to a misdemeanor conviction because of a low penalty, when in fact, it was a felony conviction.
The Supreme Court decision cited the possibility of a person who was brought to the United States as a small child, who did not know they were in the United States illegally. It would be unjust to prosecute such a case because the person did not know they were breaking the law by possessing a firearm.
Prosecution of individuals in any of these circumstances is rare. This is one of the reasons most people denied during FBI National Instant background Checks (NICS) are never prosecuted. Many had no idea they were a prohibited possessor until they applied to purchase a gun from a federal dealer. From SCOTUSblog:
Now that the court has decided that knowledge of status is required for a conviction under Section 922(g), prosecutors must think about what kinds of tangible evidence can be used to show that state of mind, and those looking to challenge their convictions must scour their records to find some evidence casting doubt on the existence of such knowledge. These tasks are complicated greatly by the fact that there are nine different status categories. While reminding prosecutors that they may prove state of mind through circumstantial evidence, the majority refused to get too specific, saying, “We express no view … about what precisely the Government must prove to establish a defendant’s knowledge of status in respect to other Section 922(g) provisions not at issue here.”
For decades, those who demand an unarmed population have worked to delegitimize and demonize possession of firearms. They have worked hard to portray the exercise of an enumerated Constitutional right as abnormal, dysfunctional, and immoral. This Supreme Court decision does much to confirm the obvious in most of the United States: Ownership of firearms is a normal, positive, and useful condition. Mere possession of a firearm is *not* a reason for suspicion of criminal activity.
A person in possession of a firearm could not be prosecuted for mere possession unless they had reason to believe they were not allowed to possess a firearm.
About Dean Weingarten:
Dean Weingarten has been a peace officer, a military officer, was on the University of Wisconsin Pistol Team for four years, and was first certified to teach firearms safety in 1973. He taught the Arizona concealed carry course for fifteen years until the goal of constitutional carry was attained. He has degrees in meteorology and mining engineering, and recently retired from the Department of Defense after a 30-year career in Army Research, Development, Testing, and Evaluation.