Staples v. United States,
511 U.S. 600 (1994)

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No.92-1441. Argued November 30, 1993-Decided May 23,1994

The National Firearms Act criminalizes possession of an unregistered "firearm," 26 U. S. C. § 5861(d), including a "machinegun," § 5845(a)(6), which is defined as a weapon that automatically fires more than one shot with a single pull of the trigger, § 5845(b). Petitioner Staples was charged with possessing an unregistered machine gun in violation of § 5861(d) after officers searching his home seized a semiautomatic riflei. e., a weapon that normally fires only one shot with each trigger pullthat had apparently been modified for fully automatic fire. At trial, Staples testified that the rifle had never fired automatically while he possessed it and that he had been ignorant of any automatic firing capability. He was convicted after the District Court rejected his proposed jury instruction under which, to establish a § 5861 (d) violation, the Government would have been required to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Staples knew that the gun would fire fully automatically. The Court of Appeals affirmed, concluding that the Government need not prove a defendant's knowledge of a weapon's physical properties to obtain a conviction under § 5861(d).

Held: To obtain a § 5861(d) conviction, the Government should have been required to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Staples knew that his rifle had the characteristics that brought it within the statutory definition of a machinegun. Pp. 604-619.

(a) The common-law rule requiring mens rea as an element of a crime informs interpretation of § 5861(d) in this case. Because some indication of congressional intent, express or implied, is required to dispense with mens rea, § 5861(d)'s silence on the element of knowledge required for a conviction does not suggest that Congress intended to dispense with a conventional mens rea requirement, which would require that the defendant know the facts making his conduct illegal. Pp. 604-606.

(b) The Court rejects the Government's argument that the Act fits within the Court's line of precedent concerning "public welfare" or "regulatory" offenses and thus that the presumption favoring mens rea does not apply in this case. In cases concerning public welfare offenses, the Court has inferred from silence a congressional intent to dispense with conventional mens rea requirements in statutes that regulate potentially harmful or injurious items. In such cases, the Court has reasoned


that as long as a defendant knows that he is dealing with a dangerous device of a character that places him in responsible relation to a public danger, he should be alerted to the probability of strict regulation, and is placed on notice that he must determine at his peril whether his conduct comes within the statute's inhibition. See, e. g., United States v. Balint, 258 U. S. 250; United States v. Freed, 401 U. S. 601. Guns, however, do not fall within the category of dangerous devices as it has been developed in public welfare offense cases. In contrast to the selling of dangerous drugs at issue in Balint or the possession of hand grenades considered in Freed, private ownership of guns in this country has enjoyed a long tradition of being entirely lawful conduct. Thus, the destructive potential of guns in general cannot be said to put gun owners sufficiently on notice of the likelihood of regulation to justify interpreting § 5861 (d) as dispensing with proof of knowledge of the characteristics that make a weapon a "firearm" under the statute. The Government's interpretation potentially would impose criminal sanctions on a class of persons whose mental state-ignorance of the characteristics of weapons in their possession-makes their actions entirely innocent. Had Congress intended to make outlaws of such citizens, it would have spoken more clearly to that effect. Pp. 606-616.

(c) The potentially harsh penalty attached to violation of § 5861 (d)up to 10 years' imprisonment-confirms the foregoing reading of the Act. Where, as here, dispensing with mens rea would require the defendant to have knowledge only of traditionally lawful conduct, a severe penalty is a further factor tending to suggest that Congress did not intend to eliminate a mens rea requirement. Pp. 616-619.

(d) The holding here is a narrow one that depends on a commonsense evaluation of the nature of the particular device Congress has subjected to regulation, the expectations that individuals may legitimately have in dealing with that device, and the penalty attached to a violation. It does not set forth comprehensive criteria for distinguishing between crimes that require a mental element and crimes that do not. Pp. 619-620.

971 F.2d 608, reversed and remanded.

THOMAS, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C. J., and SCALIA, KENNEDY, and SOUTER, JJ., joined. GINSBURG, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which O'CONNOR, J., joined, post, p. 620. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BLACKMUN, J., joined, post, p. 624.

Jennifer L. De Angelis argued the cause for petitioner.

With her on the brief was Clark O. Brewster.

Full Text of Opinion

Primary Holding

A severe penalty attached to a violation of a criminal statute usually suggests that the legislature did not intend to eliminate a mental state requirement, especially when this would require the defendant to have knowledge of conduct that is normally lawful.


Policemen and agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms discovered an AR-15 rifle when they carried out a valid search at the home of Staples. An AR-15 rifle is generally a semiautomatic weapon, but the BATF agents found that this rifle had been modified so that it was capable of fully automatic fire. The selector switch that prevents the rifle from rotating into the fully automatic position was filed away, and parts of military M-16 fully automatic rifles had been inserted. When he was charged with unlawful possession of an unregistered machine gun under Section 5861(d) of the National Firearms Act, Staples sought a jury instruction requiring the prosecution to prove that he knew that the gun would fire fully automatically. This instruction was denied, and Staples was convicted. He renewed the argument on appeal under the theory that he was unaware that the gun could fire fully automatically, so he should not have been convicted for failing to register it.



  • Clarence Thomas (Author)
  • William Hubbs Rehnquist
  • Antonin Scalia
  • Anthony M. Kennedy
  • David H. Souter

There is no reason to abandon the presumption that a defendant must know the underlying facts that form the basis of the crime. Examining the language of the statute and the apparent legislative intent, it becomes clear that Congress did not intend to criminalize ignorance by gun owners and impose long prison sentences on them. In most situations, criminal laws should not be construed to lack a mental state element unless there is legislative intent to the contrary. The exceptions are generally public welfare offenses that do not require a prison term, and this offense does not fit in that category.


  • John Paul Stevens (Author)
  • Harry Andrew Blackmun

It was logically impossible to believe that the gun could have been converted into a machine gun without any knowledge by the owner. Common law rules about mental state elements did not necessarily apply because this is a statutory rather than common law crime. The knowledge requirement thus need not be presumed, and the crime may be classified as a public welfare offense.


  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Author)
  • Sandra Day O'Connor

Case Commentary

For strict liability crimes, a defendant's ignorance of either fact or law is irrelevant. However, these crimes are only those created by statute rather than those under the common law, and they generally consist of minor offenses that are regulatory in nature or connected to the public welfare.

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