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SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
UNITED STATES, PETITIONER v. JAMES ALVIN CASTLEMAN
on writ of certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the sixth circuit
[March 26, 2013]
Justice Sotomayor delivered the opinion of the Court.
Recognizing that “[f]irearms and domestic strife are a potentially deadly combination,” United States v. Hayes,
555 U. S. 415,
, Congress forbade the possession of firearms by anyone convicted of “a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence.”
18 U. S. C. §922(g)(9). The respondent, James Alvin Castleman, pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor offense of having “intentionally or knowingly cause[d] bodily injury to” the mother of his child. App.27. The question before us is whether this conviction qualifies as “a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence.” We hold that it does.
This country witnesses more than a million acts of domestic violence, and hundreds of deaths from domestic violence, each year.[1
] See Georgia v. Randolph, 547 U. S. 103, 117–118 (2006). Domestic violence often escalates in severity over time, see Brief for Major Cities Chiefs Association et al. as Amici Curiae 13–15; Brief for National Network to End Domestic Violence et al. as Amici Curiae 9–12, and the presence of a firearm increases the likelihood that it will escalate to homicide, see id., at 14–15; Campbell et al., Assessing Risk Factors for Intimate Partner Homicide, DOJ, Nat. Institute of Justice J., No. 250, p. 16 (Nov. 2003) (“When a gun was in the house, an abused woman was 6 times more likely than other abused women to be killed”). “[A]ll too often,” as one Senator noted during the debate over §922(g)(9), “the only difference between a battered woman and a dead woman is the presence of a gun.” 142 Cong. Rec. 22986 (1996) (statement of Sen. Wellstone).
Congress enacted §922(g)(9), in light of these sobering facts, to “ ‘close [a] dangerous loophole’ ” in the gun control laws: While felons had long been barred from possessing guns, many perpetrators of domestic violence are convicted only of misdemeanors. Hayes, 555 U. S., at 418, 426. Section 922(g)(9) provides, as relevant, that any person “who has been convicted . . . of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” may not “possess in or affecting commerc[e] any firearm or ammunition.” With exceptions that do not apply here, the statute defines a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” as
“an offense that . . . (i) is a misdemeanor under Fed-eral, State, or Tribal law; and (ii) has, as an element, the use or attempted use of physical force, or the threatened use of a deadly weapon, committed by a current or former spouse, parent, or guardian of the victim, by a person with whom the victim shares a child in common, by a person who is cohabiting with or has cohabited with the victim as a spouse, parent, or guardian, or by a person similarly situated toa spouse, parent, or guardian of the victim.” §921(a)(33)(A).
This case concerns the meaning of one phrase in this definition: “the use . . . of physical force.”
In 2001, Castleman was charged in a Tennessee court with having “intentionally or knowingly cause[d] bodily injury to” the mother of his child, in violation of Tenn. Code Ann. §39–13–111(b) (Supp. 2002). App. 27. He pleaded guilty. Id., at 29.
In 2008, federal authorities learned that Castleman was selling firearms on the black market. A grand jury in the Western District of Tennessee indicted him on two counts of violating §922(g)(9) and on other charges not relevant here. Id., at 13–16.
Castleman moved to dismiss the §922(g)(9) charges, arguing that his Tennessee conviction did not qualify as a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” because it did not “ha[ve], as an element, the use . . . of physical force,” §921(a)(33)(A)(ii). The District Court agreed, on the the-ory that “the ‘use of physical force’ for §922(g)(9) purposes” must entail “violent contact with the victim.” App. to Pet. for Cert. 40a. The court held that a conviction under the relevant Tennessee statute cannot qualify as a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” because one can cause bodily injury without “violent contact”—for example, by “deceiving [the victim] into drinking a poisoned beverage.” Id., at 41a.
A divided panel of the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed, by different reasoning. 695 F. 3d 582 (2012). The majority held that the degree of physical force required by §921(a)(33)(A)(ii) is the same as required by §924(e)(2)(B)(i), which defines “violent felony.” Id., at 587. Applying our decision in Johnson v. United States,
559 U. S. 133 (2010)
, which held that §924(e)(2)(B)(i) re-quires “violent force,” id., at 140, the majority held that Castleman’s conviction did not qualify as a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” because Castleman could have been convicted for “caus[ing] a slight, nonserious physical injury with conduct that cannot be described as violent.” 695 F. 3d, at 590. Judge McKeague dissented, arguing both that the majority erred in extending Johnson’s definition of a “violent felony” to the context of a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” and that, in any event, Castle-man’s conviction satisfied the Johnson standard. Id., at 593–597.
The Sixth Circuit’s decision deepened a split of author-ity among the Courts of Appeals. Compare, e.g., United States v. Nason, 269 F. 3d 10, 18 (CA1 2001) (§922(g)(9) “encompass[es] crimes characterized by the application of any physical force”), with United States v. Belless, 338 F. 3d 1063, 1068 (CA9 2003) (§922(g)(9) covers only “the violent use of force”). We granted certiorari to resolve this split, 570 U. S. ___ (2013), and now reverse the Sixth Cir-cuit’s judgment.
“It is a settled principle of interpretation that, absent other indication, ‘Congress intends to incorporate the well-settled meaning of the common-law terms it uses.’ ” Sekhar v. United States, 570 U. S. ___, ___ (2013) (slip op., at 3). Seeing no “other indication” here, we hold that Congress incorporated the common-law meaning of “force”—namely, offensive touching—in §921(a)(33)(A)’s definition of a “mis-demeanor crime of domestic violence.”
Johnson resolves this case in the Government’s favor—not, as the Sixth Circuit held, in Castleman’s. In Johnson, we considered whether a battery conviction was a “violent felony” under the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA), §924(e)(1). As here, ACCA defines such a crime as one that “has as an element the use . . . of physical force,” §924(e)(2)(B)(i). We began by observing that at common law, the element of force in the crime of battery was “satisfied by even the slightest offensive touching.” 559 U. S., at 139 (citing 3 W. Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England 120 (1768)).[2
] And we recognized the general rule that “a common-law term of art should be given its established common-law meaning,” except “where that meaning does not fit.” 559 U. S., at 139. We declined to read the common-law meaning of “force” into ACCA’s definition of a “violent felony,” because we found it a “comical misfit with the defined term.” Id., at 145; see United States v. Stevens,
559 U. S. 460,
(“[A]n unclear definitional phrase may take meaning from the term to be defined”). In defining a “ ‘violent felony,’ ” we held, “the phrase ‘physical force’ ” must “mea[n] violent force.” Johnson, 559 U. S., at 140. But here, the common-law meaning of “force” fits perfectly: The very reasons we gave for rejecting that meaning in defining a “violent felony” are reasons to embrace it in defining a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence.”[3
First, because perpetrators of domestic violence are “routinely prosecuted under generally applicable assault or battery laws,” Hayes, 555 U. S., at 427, it makes sense for Congress to have classified as a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” the type of conduct that supports a common-law battery conviction. Whereas it was “unlikely” that Congress meant to incorporate in the definition of a “ ‘violent felony’ a phrase that the common law gave peculiar meaning only in its definition of a misdemeanor,” Johnson, 559 U. S., at 141, it is likely that Congress meant to incorporate that misdemeanor-specific meaning of “force” in defining a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence.”
Second, whereas the word “violent” or “violence” standing alone “connotes a substantial degree of force,” id., at 140,[4
] that is not true of “domestic violence.” “Domestic violence” is not merely a type of “violence”; it is a term of art encompassing acts that one might not characterize as “violent” in a nondomestic context. See Brief for National Network to End Domestic Violence et al. as Amici Curiae 4–9; DOJ, Office on Violence Against Women, Domestic Violence (defining physical forms of domestic violence to include “[h]itting, slapping, shoving, grabbing, pinching, biting, [and] hair pulling”), online at http://www.ovw.usdoj.gov/domviolence.htm.[5
] Indeed, “most physical assaults committed against women and men by intimates are relatively minor and consist of pushing, grabbing, shoving, slapping, and hitting.” DOJ, P. Tjaden & N. Thoennes, Extent, Nature and Consequences of Intimate Partner Violence 11 (2000).
Minor uses of force may not constitute “violence” in the generic sense. For example, in an opinion that we cited with approval in Johnson, the Seventh Circuit noted that it was “hard to describe . . . as ‘violence’ ” “a squeeze of the arm [that] causes a bruise.” Flores v. Ashcroft, 350 F. 3d 666, 670 (2003). But an act of this nature is easy to describe as “domestic violence,” when the accumulation of such acts over time can subject one intimate partner to the other’s control. If a seemingly minor act like this draws the attention of authorities and leads to a successful prosecution for a misdemeanor offense, it does not offend common sense or the English language to characterize the resulting conviction as a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence.”
Justice Scalia’s concurrence discounts our reference to social-science definitions of “domestic violence,” including those used by the organizations most directly engaged with the problem and thus most aware of its dimensions. See post, at 8–11. It is important to keep in mind, how-ever, that the operative phrase we are construing is not “domestic violence”; it is “physical force.” §921(a)(33)(A). “Physical force” has a presumptive common-law meaning, and the question is simply whether that presumptive meaning makes sense in defining a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence.”[6
A third reason for distinguishing Johnson’s definition of “physical force” is that unlike in Johnson—where a determination that the defendant’s crime was a “violent felony” would have classified him as an “armed career criminal”—the statute here groups those convicted of “misdemeanor crimes of domestic violence” with others whose conduct does not warrant such a designation. Section 922(g) bars gun possession by anyone “addicted to any controlled substance,” §922(g)(3); by most people who have “been admitted to the United States under a nonimmigrant visa,” §922(g)(5)(B); by anyone who has renounced United States citizenship, §922(g)(7); and by anyone subject to a domestic restraining order, §922(g)(8). Whereas we have hesitated (as in Johnson) to apply the Armed Career Criminal Act to “crimes which, though dangerous, are not typically committed by those whom one normally labels ‘armed career criminals,’ ” Begay v. United States,
553 U. S. 137,
, we see no anomaly in grouping domestic abusers convicted of generic assault or battery offenses together with the others whom §922(g) disqualifies from gun ownership.
An additional reason to read the statute as we do is that a contrary reading would have rendered §922(g)(9) inoperative in many States at the time of its enactment. The “assault or battery laws” under which “domestic abusers were . . . routinely prosecuted” when Congress enacted §922(g)(9), and under which many are still prosecuted today, Hayes, 555 U. S., at 427, fall generally into two categories: those that prohibit both offensive touching and the causation of bodily injury, and those that prohibit only the latter. See Brief for United States 36–38. Whether or not the causation of bodily injury necessarily entails violent force—a question we do not reach—mere offensive touching does not. See Johnson, 559 U. S., at 139–140. So if offensive touching did not constitute “force” under §921(a)(33)(A), then §922(g)(9) would have been ineffec-tual in at least 10 States—home to nearly thirty percent of the Nation’s population[7
]—at the time of its enactment. See post, at 6, and n. 5 (Scalia, J., concurring in part and concurring in judgment) (acknowledging that §922(g)(9) would have been inapplicable in California and nine other States if it did not encompass offensive touching); App. to Brief for United States 10a–16a (listing statutes prohibiting both offensive touching and the causation of bodily injury, only some of which are divisible); cf. Hayes, 555 U. S., at 427 (rejecting an interpretation under which “§922(g)(9) would have been ‘a dead letter’ in some two-thirds of the States from the very moment of its enactment”).
In sum, Johnson requires that we attribute the common-law meaning of “force” to §921(a)(33)(A)’s definition of a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” as an offense that “has, as an element, the use or attempted useof physical force.” We therefore hold that the requirement of “physical force” is satisfied, for purposes of §922(g)(9), by the degree of force that supports a common-law battery conviction.
Applying this definition of “physical force,” we conclude that Castleman’s conviction qualifies as a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence.” In doing so, we follow the analytic approach of Taylor v. United States,
495 U. S. 575 (1990)
, and Shepard v. United States,
544 U. S. 13 (2005)
. We begin with Taylor’s categorical approach, under which we look to the statute of Castleman’s conviction to determine whether that conviction necessarily “ha[d], as an element, the use or attempted use of physical force, or the threatened use of a deadly weapon,” §921(a)(33)(A).
The Tennessee statute under which Castleman was convicted made it a crime to “commi[t] an assault . . . against” a “family or household member”—in Castleman’s case, the mother of his child. Tenn. Code Ann. §39–13–111(b). A provision incorporated by reference, §39–13–101, defined three types of assault: “(1) [i]ntentionally, knowingly or recklessly caus[ing] bodily injury to another; (2) [i]ntentionally or knowingly caus[ing] another to reasonably fear imminent bodily injury; or (3) [i]ntentionally or knowingly caus[ing] physical contact with another” in a manner that a “reasonable person would regard . . . as extremely offensive or provocative.” §39–13–101(a).
It does not appear that every type of assault defined by §39–13–101 necessarily involves “the use or attempted use of physical force, or the threatened use of a deadly weapon,” §921(a)(33)(A). A threat under §39–13–101(2) maynot necessarily involve a deadly weapon, and the merely reckless causation of bodily injury under §39–13–101(1) may not be a “use” of force.[8
But we need not decide whether a domestic assault conviction in Tennessee categorically constitutes a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence,” because the parties do not contest that §39–13–101 is a “ ‘divisible statute,’ ” Descamps v. United States, 570 U. S. ___, ___ (2013) (slip op., at 1). We may accordingly apply the modified categorical approach, consulting the indictment to which Castleman pleaded guilty in order to determine whether his conviction did entail the elements necessary to constitute the generic federal offense. Id., at ___ (slip op., at 1–2); see Shepard, 544 U. S., at 26. Here, that analysis is straightforward: Castleman pleaded guilty to having “intentionally or knowingly cause[d] bodily injury” to the mother of his child, App. 27, and the knowing or intentional causation of bodily injury necessarily involves the use of physical force.
First, a “bodily injury” must result from “physical force.” Under Tennessee law, “bodily injury” is a broad term: It “includes a cut, abrasion, bruise, burn or disfigurement; physical pain or temporary illness or impairment of the function of a bodily member, organ, or mental faculty.” Tenn. Code Ann. §39–11–106(a)(2) (1997). Justice Sca-lia’s concurrence suggests that these forms of injury ne-cessitate violent force, under Johnson’s definition of that phrase. Post, at 3. But whether or not that is so—aquestion we do not decide—these forms of injury do necessitate force in the common-law sense.
The District Court thought otherwise, reasoning that one can cause bodily injury “without the ‘use of physical force’ ”—for example, by “deceiving [the victim] into drinking a poisoned beverage, without making contact of any kind.” App. to Pet. for Cert. 41a. But as we explained in Johnson, “physical force” is simply “force exerted by and through concrete bodies,” as opposed to “intellectual force or emotional force.” 559 U. S., at 138. And the common-law concept of “force” encompasses even its indirect ap-plication. “Force” in this sense “describ[es] one of the elements of the common-law crime of battery,” id., at 139, and “[t]he force used” in battery “need not be applied directly to the body of the victim.” 2 W. LaFave, Substan-tive Criminal Law §16.2(b) (2d ed. 2003). “[A] battery may be committed by administering a poison or by infecting with a disease, or even by resort to some intangible substance,” such as a laser beam. Ibid. (footnote omitted) (citing State v. Monroe, 121 N. C. 677, 28 S. E. 547 (1897) (poison); State v. Lankford, 29 Del. 594, 102 A. 63 (1917) (disease); Adams v. Commonwealth, 33 Va. App. 463, 534 S. E. 2d 347 (2000) (laser beam)). It is impossible to cause bodily injury without applying force in the common-law sense.
Second, the knowing or intentional application of force is a “use” of force. Castleman is correct that under Leocal v. Ashcroft,
543 U. S. 1 (2004)
, the word “use” “conveys the idea that the thing used (here, ‘physical force’) has been made the user’s instrument.” Brief for Respondent 37. But he errs in arguing that although “[p]oison may have ‘forceful physical properties’ as a matter of organic chemistry, . . . no one would say that a poisoner ‘employs’ force or ‘carries out a purpose by means of force’ when he orshe sprinkles poison in a victim’s drink,” ibid. The “useof force” in Castleman’s example is not the act of “sprinkl[ing]” the poison; it is the act of employing poison knowingly as a device to cause physical harm. That the harm occurs indirectly, rather than directly (as with a kick or punch), does not matter. Under Castleman’s logic, after all, one could say that pulling the trigger on a gun is not a “use of force” because it is the bullet, not the trigger, that actually strikes the victim. Leocal held that the “use” of force must entail “a higher degree of intent than negligent or merely accidental conduct,” 543 U. S., at 9; it did not hold that the word “use” somehow alters the meaning of “force.”
Because Castleman’s indictment makes clear that the use of physical force was an element of his conviction, that conviction qualifies as a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence.”
We are not persuaded by Castleman’s nontextual arguments against our interpretation of §922(g)(9).
First, Castleman invokes §922(g)(9)’s legislative history to suggest that Congress could not have intended for the provision to apply to acts involving minimal force. But to the extent that legislative history can aid in the inter-pretation of this statute, Castleman’s reliance on it is unpersuasive.
Castleman begins by observing that during the debate over §922(g)(9), several Senators argued that the provision would help to prevent gun violence by perpetrators of severe domestic abuse. Senator Lautenberg referred to “serious spousal or child abuse” and to “violent individuals”; Senator Hutchison to “ ‘people who batter their wives’ ”; Senator Wellstone to people who “brutalize” their wives or children; and Senator Feinstein to “severe and recurring domestic violence.” 142 Cong. Rec. 22985–22986, 22988. But as we noted above, see supra, at 2, the impetus of §922(g)(9) was that even perpetrators of severe domestic violence are often convicted “under generally applicable assault or battery laws.” Hayes, 555 U. S., at 427. So nothing about these Senators’ isolated references to severe domestic violence suggests that they would not have wanted §922(g)(9) to apply to a misdemeanor assault conviction like Castleman’s.
Castleman next observes that §922(g)(9) is the product of a legislative compromise. The provision originally barred gun possession for any “crime of domestic violence,” defined as any “felony or misdemeanor crime of violence, regardless of length, term, or manner of punishment.” 142 Cong. Rec. 5840. Congress rewrote the provision to require the use of physical force in response to the concern “that the term crime of violence was too broad, and could be interpreted to include an act such as cutting up a credit card with a pair of scissors,” id., at 26675. See Hayes, 555 U. S., at 428. Castleman would have us conclude that Congress thus meant “to narrow the scope of the statute to convictions based on especially severe conduct.” Brief for Respondent 24. But all Congress meant to do was address the fear that §922(g)(9) might be triggered by offenses in which no force at all was directed at a person. As Senator Lautenberg noted, the revised text was not only “more precise” than the original but also “probably broader.” 142 Cong. Rec. 26675.
We are similarly unmoved by Castleman’s invocation of the rule of lenity. Castleman is correct that our “construction of a criminal statute must be guided by the need for fair warning.” Crandon v. United States,
494 U. S. 152,
. But “the rule of lenity only applies if, after considering text, structure, history, and purpose, there remains a grievous ambiguity or uncertainty in the statute, such that the Court must simply guess as to what Congress intended.” Barber v. Thomas,
560 U. S. 474,
(citation and internal quotation marks omitted). That is not the case here.
Finally, Castleman suggests—in a single paragraph—that we should read §922(g)(9) narrowly because it implicates his constitutional right to keep and bear arms. But Castleman has not challenged the constitutionality of §922(g)(9), either on its face or as applied to him, and the meaning of the statute is sufficiently clear that we need not indulge Castleman’s cursory nod to constitutional avoidance concerns.
* * *
Castleman’s conviction for having “intentionally or knowingly cause[d] bodily injury to” the mother of his child qualifies as a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence.” The judgment of the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit is therefore reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.
It is so ordered.