Caron v. United States
524 U.S. 308 (1998)
Opinion of the Court
Supreme Court of the United
GERALD R. CARON, PETITIONER v. UNITED STATES
ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS
FOR THE FIRST CIRCUIT
[June 22, 1998]
Justice Kennedy delivered the opinion of the Court.
Under federal law, a person convicted of a crime
punishable by more than one year in prison may not possess any firearm.
18 U.S.C. §
922(g)(1). If he has three violent felony convictions and violates the
statute, he must receive an enhanced sentence. §924(e). A previous
conviction is a predicate for neither the substantive offense nor the sentence
enhancement if the offender has had his civil rights restored, “unless
such … restoration of civil rights expressly provides that the person may
not … possess … firearms.” §921(a)(20). This is the
so-called “unless clause” we now must interpret. As the ellipses
suggest, the statute is more complex, but the phrase as quoted presents the
issue for our decision.
The parties, reflecting a similar division among
various Courts of Appeals, disagree over the interpretation of the unless
clause in the following circumstance. What if the State restoring the
offender’s rights forbids possession of some firearms, say pistols, but
not others, say rifles? In one sense, he “may not … possess …
firearms” under the unless clause because the ban on specified weapons is
a ban on “firearms.” In another sense, he can possess firearms under
the unless clause because the state ban is not absolute. Compare, e.g.,
United States v. Estrella, 104 F.3d 3, 8 (CA1) (adopting former
reading), cert. denied, 521 U.S. ___ (1997) and United States v.
Driscoll, 970 F.2d 1472, 1480-1481 (CA6 1992) (same), cert. denied, 506
U S. 1083 (1993), with United States v. Qualls, ___ F.3d ___, No.
95-50378, 1998 WL 149393, *2 (CA9, Apr. 2, 1998) (en banc) (intermediate
position), and United States v. Shoemaker, 2 F.3d 53, 55-56 (CA4
1993) (same), cert. denied,
The Government contends the class of criminals who
“may not … possess … firearms” includes those forbidden to
have some guns but not others. On this reading, the restoration of rights is of
no effect here, the previous offenses are chargeable, and petitioner’s
sentence must be enhanced. On appeal, the Government’s position prevailed
in the Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, and we now affirm its judgment.
Petitioner Gerald Caron has an extensive criminal
record, including felonies. In Massachusetts state court, he was convicted in
1958 of attempted breaking and entering at night and, in 1959 and 1963, of
breaking and entering at night. In California state court, he was convicted in
1970 of assault with intent to commit murder and attempted murder.
In July 1993, petitioner walked into the home of
Walter Miller, carrying a semiautomatic rifle. He threatened Miller, brandished
the rifle in his face, and pointed it at his wife, his daughters, and his
3-year-old grandson. Police officers disarmed and arrested petitioner.
In September 1993, a federal agent called on
petitioner at home to determine if he had other unlawful firearms. Petitioner
said he had only flintlock or other antique weapons (not forbidden by law) and
owned no conventional firearms. Federal law, the agent told him, forbade his
possession of firearms and was not superseded by state law. In December 1993,
agents executed a search warrant at petitioner’s house, seizing six rifles
and shotguns and 6,823 rounds of ammunition.
A federal jury convicted petitioner of four counts
of possessing a firearm or ammunition after having been convicted of a serious
offense. See 18 U.S.C.
§ 922(g)(1). The District Court enhanced his sentence because he was
at least a three-time violent felon, based on his one California and three
Massachusetts convictions. See §924(e). Petitioner claimed the Court
should not have counted his Massachusetts convictions because his civil rights
had been restored by operation of Massachusetts law. Massachusetts law allowed
petitioner to possess rifles or shotguns, as he had the necessary firearm
permit and his felony convictions were more than five years old. Mass. Gen.
Laws §§140:123, 140:129B, 140:129C (1996). The law forbade him to
possess handguns outside his home or business. See §§140:121,
At first, the District Court rejected the claim
that Massachusetts had restored petitioner’s civil rights. It held civil
rights had to be restored by an offender-specific action rather than by
operation of law. The First Circuit disagreed, vacating the sentence and
remanding the case. United States v. Caron, 77 F.3d 1, 2, 6
(1996) (en banc). We denied certiorari.
1027 (1996). On remand, the District Court, interpreting the unless clause
of the federal statute, disregarded the Massachusetts convictions. It ruled
Massachusetts law did not forbid petitioner’s possession of firearms
because he could possess rifles. 941 F. Supp. 238, 251-254 (Mass. 1996). Though
Massachusetts restricted petitioner’s right to carry a handgun, the
District Court considered the restriction irrelevant because his case involved
rifles and shotguns. See ibid. The First Circuit reversed, counting the
convictions because petitioner remained subject to significant firearms
restrictions. We granted certiorari. 522 U.S. ___ (1998).
A federal statute forbids possession of firearms by
those convicted of serious offenses. An abbreviated version of the statute is
“It shall be unlawful for any person–
“(1) who has been convicted in any court of, a
crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year;
. . . . .
“to ship or transport in interstate or foreign commerce, or possess in
or affecting commerce, any firearm or ammunition; or to receive any firearm or
ammunition which has been shipped or transported in interstate or foreign
U.S.C. § 922(g).
Three-time violent felons who violate §922(g)
face enhanced sentences of at least 15 years’ imprisonment.
§924(e)(1). “Violent felony” is defined to include burglary and
other crimes creating a serious risk of physical injury.
§924(e)(2)(B)(ii). This term includes petitioner’s previous offenses
Not all violent felony convictions, however, count
for purposes of §922(g) or §924(e). Until 1986, federal law alone
determined whether a state conviction counted, regardless of whether the State
had expunged the conviction. Dickerson v. New Banner Institute,
Inc., 460 U.S.
103, 119-122 (1983). Congress modified this aspect of Dickerson by
adopting the following language:
“What constitutes a conviction of such a crime shall be determined in
accordance with the law of the jurisdiction in which the proceedings were held.
Any conviction which has been expunged, or set aside or for which a person has
been pardoned or has had civil rights restored shall not be considered a
conviction for purposes of this chapter, unless such pardon, expungement, or
restoration of civil rights expressly provides that the person may not ship,
transport, possess, or receive firearms.” §921(a)(20).
The first sentence and the first clause of the second sentence define
convictions, pardons, expungements, and restorations of civil rights by
reference to the law of the convicting jurisdiction. See Beecham v.
368, 371 (1994).
Aside from the unless clause, the parties agree
Massachusetts law has restored petitioner’s civil rights. As for the
unless clause, state law permits him to possess rifles and shotguns but forbids
him to possess handguns outside his home or business. The question presented is
whether the handgun restriction activates the unless clause, making the
convictions count under federal law.
We note these preliminary points. First,
Massachusetts restored petitioner’s civil rights by operation of law
rather than by pardon or the like. This fact makes no difference. Nothing in
the text of §921(a)(20) requires a case-by-case decision to restore civil
rights to this particular offender. While the term “pardon” connotes
a case-by-case determination, “restoration of civil rights” does not.
Massachusetts has chosen a broad rule to govern this situation, and federal law
gives effect to its rule. All Courts of Appeals to address the point agree. See
Caron, 77 F.3d, at 2; McGrath v. United States, 60 F.3d
1005, 1008 (CA2 1995), cert. denied,
1121 (1996); United States v. Hall, 20 F.3d 1066, 1068-1069
(CA10 1994); United States v. Glaser, 14 F.3d 1213, 1218 (CA7
1994); United States v. Thomas, 991 F.2d 206, 212-213 (CA5),
1014 (1993); United States v. Dahms, 938 F.2d 131, 133-134
(CA9 1991); United States v. Essick, 935 F.2d 28, 30-31 (CA4
1991); United States v. Cassidy, 899 F.2d 543, 550, and n. 14
Second, the District Court ruled, and petitioner
urges here, that the unless clause allows an offender to possess what state law
permits him to possess, and nothing more. Here, petitioner’s shotguns and
rifles were permitted by state law, so, under their theory, the weapons would
not be covered by the unless clause. While we do not dispute the common sense
of this approach, the words of the statute do not permit it. The unless clause
is activated if a restoration of civil rights “expressly provides that the
person may not … possess … firearms.”
18 U.S.C. §
921(a)(20). Either the restorations forbade possession of
“firearms” and the convictions count for all purposes, or they did
not and the convictions count not at all. The unless clause looks to the terms
of the past restorations alone and does not refer to the weapons at issue in
the present case. So if the Massachusetts convictions count for some purposes,
they count for all and bar possession of all guns.
The phrase “may not … possess …
firearms,” then, must be interpreted under either of what the parties call
the two “all-or-nothing” approaches. Either it applies when the State
forbids one or more types of firearms, as the Government contends; or it does
not apply if state law permits one or more types of firearms, regardless of the
one possessed in the particular case.
Under the Government’s approach, a state
weapons limitation on an offender activates the uniform federal ban on
possessing any firearms at all. This is so even if the guns the offender
possessed were ones the State permitted him to have. The State has singled out
as more dangerous than law-abiding citizens, and federal law uses this
determination to impose its own broader stricture.
Although either reading creates incongruities,
petitioner’s approach yields results contrary to a likely, and rational,
congressional policy. If permission to possess one firearm entailed permission
to possess all, then state permission to have a pistol would allow possession
of an assault weapon as well. Under this view, if petitioner, in violation of
state law, had possessed a handgun, the unless clause would still not apply
because he could have possessed a rifle. Not only would this strange result be
inconsistent with any conceivable federal policy, but it also would arise often
enough to impair the working of the federal statute. Massachusetts, in this
case, and some 15 other States choose to restore civil rights while restricting
firearm rights in part. The permissive reading would make these partial
restrictions a nullity under federal law, indeed in the egregious cases with
the most dangerous weapons. Congress cannot have intended this bizarre result.
Under petitioner’s all-or-nothing argument,
federal law would forbid only a subset of activities already criminal under
state law. This limitation would contradict the intent of Congress. In
Congress’ view, existing state laws “provide less than positive
assurance that the person in question no longer poses an unacceptable risk of
dangerousness.” Dickerson, 460 U.S., at 120. Congress meant to keep
guns away from all offenders who, the Federal Government feared, might cause
harm, even if those persons were not deemed dangerous by States. See
id., at 119. If federal law is to provide the missing “positive
assurance,” it must reach primary conduct not covered by state law. The
need for this caution is borne out by petitioner’s rifle attack on the
Miller family, in which petitioner used a gun permitted by state law. Any other
result would reduce federal law to a sentence enhancement for some state-law
violations, a result inconsistent with the congressional intent we recognized
in Dickerson. Permission to possess one gun cannot mean permission to
Congress responded to our ruling in
Dickerson by providing that the law of the State of conviction, not
federal law, determines the restoration of civil rights as a rule. While state
law is the source of law for restorations of other civil rights, however, it
does not follow that state law also controls the unless clause. Under the
Government’s approach, with which we agree, the federal policy still
governs the interpretation of the unless clause. We see nothing contradictory
in this analysis. Restoration of the right to vote, the right to hold office,
and the right to sit on a jury turns on so many complexities and nuances that
state law is the most convenient source for definition. As to the possession of
weapons, however, the Federal Government has an interest in a single, national,
protective policy, broader than required by state law. Petitioner’s
approach would undermine this protective purpose.
As a final matter, petitioner says his reading is
required by the rule of lenity, but his argument is unavailing. The rule of
lenity is not invoked by a grammatical possibility. It does not apply if the
ambiguous reading relied on is an implausible reading of the congressional
purpose. See United States v. Shabani,
10, 17 (1994) (requiring use of traditional tools of statutory construction
to resolve ambiguities before resorting to the rule of lenity). For the reasons
we have explained, petitioner’s reading is not plausible enough to satisfy
In sum, Massachusetts treats petitioner as too
dangerous to trust with handguns, though it accords this right to law-abiding
citizens. Federal law uses this state finding of dangerousness in forbidding
petitioner to have any guns. The judgment of the Court of Appeals is