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Foreign convictions don't prevent gun ownership in U.S.

Date Posted to Site: 05/03/2005

A Pennsylvania man can keep his gun after the Supreme Court concluded Tuesday that his conviction for crimes overseas did not prevent him from later owning a firearm.

At issue was whether a federal law prohibiting gun possession for anyone previously "convicted in any court" applied to convictions in foreign courts.

The justices ruled 5-3 that it did not, since "foreign convictions differ from domestic convictions in important ways," Justice Stephen Breyer wrote for the majority.

Gary Small was convicted in a Japanese court in 1994 after customs officials became suspicious when he tried to ship a 19-gallon water heater from the United States to Okinawa. Searching the tank, officers found two rifles, eight semiautomatic pistols, and 410 rounds of ammunition. Japan has strict gun ownership and smuggling laws, and Small was sentenced to a five-year term. He was paroled in 1996.

Just days after his parole ended in 1998, Small, who had returned to the United States, purchased a 9-millimeter pistol from a Pennsylvania gun dealer. He indicated on a federal form when he purchased the weapon that he had never been convicted of a felony. He was later charged with lying on the form and with having other illegal weapons, after his home and business were searched.

Small argued his overseas offense should not be held against him. However, he pleaded guilty on a conditional basis, pending Tuesday's ruling in his favor.

"The statute's language does not suggest any intent to reach beyond domestic convictions," noted Breyer, writing for justices John Paul Stevens, Sandra Day O'Connor, David Souter, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Breyer also said it was apparent Congress never considered a foreign conviction provision in its law. But he noted lawmakers are now free to amend the law to make it clear it applied to convictions in other countries.

In dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas said the language of the phrase "convicted in any court" had an "expansive meaning" to include foreign convictions. The majority, he said, "institutes the troubling rule that 'any' does not really mean 'any,' but may mean 'some subset of 'any," even if nothing in the context so indicates; it distorts the established canons against extraterritorality and absurdity."

He was joined by justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy. The Bush administration argued on behalf of applying the law to foreign convictions.

Chief Justice William Rehnquist did not rule in the case, since he was undergoing cancer treatment when oral arguments were held in November.

The case was Small v. U.S., no. 03-0750.

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