Muscarello v. United States
524 U.S. 125 (1998)

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No. 96-1654. Argued March 23, 1998-Decided June 8,1998*

A person who "uses or carries a firearm" "during and in relation to" a "drug trafficking crime" is subject to a 5-year mandatory prison term. 18 U. S. C. § 924(c)(I). In the first case, police officers found a handgun locked in the glove compartment of petitioner Muscarello's truck, which he was using to transport marijuana for sale. In the second case, federal agents at a drug-sale point found drugs and guns in the trunk of petitioners' car. In both cases, the Courts of Appeals found that petitioners had carried firearms in violation of § 924(c)(I).

Held: The phrase "carries a firearm" applies to a person who knowingly possesses and conveys firearms in a vehicle, including in the locked glove compartment or trunk of a car, which the person accompanies. Pp. 127-139.

(a) As a matter of ordinary English, one can "carry firearms" in a wagon, car, truck, or other vehicle which one accompanies. The word's first, or basic, meaning in dictionaries and the word's origin make clear that "carry" includes conveying in a vehicle. The greatest of writers have used "carry" with this meaning, as has the modern press. Contrary to the arguments of petitioners and the dissent, there is no linguistic reason to think that Congress intended to limit the word to its secondary meaning, which suggests support rather than movement or transportation, as when, for example, a column "carries" the weight of an arch. Given the word's ordinary meaning, it is not surprising that the Federal Courts of Appeals have unanimously concluded that "carry" is not limited to the carrying of weapons directly on the person but can include their carriage in a car. Pp. 127-132.

(b) Neither the statute's basic purpose-to combat the "dangerous combination" of "drugs and guns," Smith v. United States, 508 U. S. 223, 240-nor its legislative history supports circumscribing the scope of the word "carry" by applying an "on the person" limitation. Pp. 132-134.

(c) Petitioners' remaining arguments to the contrary-that the definition adopted here obliterates the statutory distinction between "carry" and "transport," a word used in other provisions of the "fire-

*Together with No. 96-8837, Cleveland et al. v. United States, on certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit.


arms" section of the United States Code; that it would be anomalous to construe "carry" broadly when the related phrase "uses ... a firearm," 18 U. S. C. § 924(c)(I), has been construed narrowly to include only the "active employment" of a firearm, Bailey v. United States, 516 U. S. 137, 144; that this Court's reading of the statute would extend its coverage to passengers on buses, trains, or ships, who have placed a firearm, say, in checked luggage; and that the "rule of lenity" should apply because of statutory ambiguity-are unconvincing. Pp. 134-139.

No. 96-1654, 106 F.3d 636, and No. 96-8837, 106 F.3d 1056, affirmed.

BREYER, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which STEVENS, O'CONNOR, KENNEDY, and THOMAS, JJ., joined. GINSBURG, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which REHNQUIST, C. J., and SCALIA and SOUTER, JJ., joined, post, p. 139.

Robert H. Klonoff argued the cause for petitioner in No. 96-1654. With him on the briefs were Gregory A. Castanias, Paul R. Reichert, and Ron S. Macaluso. Norman S. Zalkind, by appointment of the Court, 522 U. S. 1074, argued the cause for petitioners in No. 96-8837. With him on the briefs were Elizabeth A. Lunt, David Duncan, and John H. Cunha, Jr., by appointment of the Court, 522 U. S. 1074.

James A. Feldman argued the cause for the United States in both cases. With him on the brief were Solicitor General Waxman, Acting Assistant Attorney General Keeney, and Deputy Solicitor General Dreeben.t

JUSTICE BREYER delivered the opinion of the Court.

A provision in the firearms chapter of the federal criminal code imposes a 5-year mandatory prison term upon a person who "uses or carries a firearm" "during and in relation to" a "drug trafficking crime." 18 U. S. C. § 924(c)(1). The question before us is whether the phrase "carries a firearm" is limited to the carrying of firearms on the person. We hold that it is not so limited. Rather, it also applies to a person

tDaniel Kanstroom, David Porter, and Kyle O'Dowd filed a brief for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers et al. as amici curiae urging reversal.

Full Text of Opinion

Primary Holding
A person who knowingly possesses and conveys firearms in a vehicle, including in its glove compartment or truck, can be deemed to be within the scope of the statutory phrase "carries a firearm."
After he was convicted of drug trafficking, Muscarello argued that the mandatory five-year minimum sentence under 18 U.S.C. Section 924(c)(1) should not apply to him. This statute provided for a mandatory minimum sentence when the defendant carries a firearm during and in relation to a drug trafficking crime. Muscarello pointed out that his gun was actually in the locked glove compartment of his car at the time, and Congress intended a literal meaning of "carry" that meant that the gun needed to be on the defendant's person.



  • Stephen G. Breyer (Author)
  • John Paul Stevens
  • Sandra Day O'Connor
  • Anthony M. Kennedy
  • Clarence Thomas

According to dictionaries and other types of ordinary usage, carrying a firearm includes conveying it in a vehicle. Both high-quality prose and everyday speakers use the word in this sense, and Congress did not intend a special legal meaning in this context. Dictionaries find that providing physical support for the gun is only a secondary meaning. Using the primary, broader meaning does not undermine the purpose of the statute to discourage the combination of drugs and guns, and the legislative history contains no support for the defendant's argument.

The defendant is incorrect in claiming that "carry" needs to have a narrow definition because it is different from "transport," a term with a broader meaning that is used in related statutes. There also is no need to interpret it narrowly just because "uses," which is the companion verb in the statute, is interpreted narrowly. Each word in a statute may be interpreted independently without transferring restrictions from others. Limitations elsewhere in the statute guard against overly broad interpretations of the word "carry," but the defendant's actions fall within those limitations. The rule of lenity does not need to be applied in this instance because it does not arise in every case of statutory ambiguity unless that ambiguity is significant and forces a court to guess as to the legislative intent.


  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Author)
  • William Hubbs Rehnquist
  • Antonin Scalia
  • David H. Souter

The statutory meaning of "carries" is different from the ordinary meaning that the majority finds in sources such as dictionaries. Imposing mandatory minimum sentences is appropriate only in the most dangerous of situations when guns are in the closest proximity to the defendant. The rule of lenity should be applied to resolve this major ambiguity in the defendant's favor.

Case Commentary

Even if the mandatory sentencing minimum had not applied, the court could have enhanced the defendant's sentence at its discretion because having the firearm in the car would have been an aggravating factor.

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