Staples v. United States, 511 U.S. 600 (1994)
Harold Staples had been found in possession of an assault rifle that as manufactured had been only capable of firing one bullet with each separate pull of the trigger. However, at the time of his arrest, the firing mechanism had been modified, with the result that the weapon was now capable of full automatic fire. Staples was charged with violating 26 U.S.C. } 5861(d) of the National Firearm Act, which provides that it is unlawful for any person ‘‘to receive or possess a firearm which is not registered to him in the National Firearms Registration and Transfer Record.’’ Pursuant to 26 U.S.C. } 5845(a)(6) a ‘‘firearm’’ is defined as, among others, a ‘‘machine gun’’ and pursuant to 26 U.S.C. } 5845(b) a ‘‘machine gun’’ is defined as ‘‘any weapon which shoots . . . automatically more than one shot . . . by a single function of the trigger . . . .’’
At his trial, Staples argued that he was unaware of the modification and that he had never fired the rifle automatically while in his possession. Staples contended that his ignorance of the automatic firing capabilities of the rifle protected him from criminal liability for not registering his rifle as a ‘‘firearm.’’ Staples requested that the district court instruct the jury that to convict him under Section 5861(d), the government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he knew that the weapon fell within the statutory definition of a machine gun. The district court denied his request, and he appealed.
The Supreme Court held that, before an individual can be convicted of possessing an unregistered firearm under Section 5861(d), where it was alleged that the ‘‘firearm’’ in question was a machine gun under the statute, the government would have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant knew that the weapon in question had the peculiar characteristics that brought it within the statutory definition of a ‘‘machine gun.’’
The Court explained that given the silence of } 5861(d) concerning a mens rea element requiring that an accused know the facts making the accused’s conduct illegal, the role of the common law favoring a requirement of mens rea should govern the interpretation of that section in this case. The Court noted that the severe potential penalty involved in violation of } 5861(d) (ten years) confirmed that the Court’s reading of the statute is not involving an attempt by Congress to eliminate a mens rea requirement.
PATRICK H. HAGGERTY
See also Right to Bear Arms (II); United States v. Miller, 425 U.S. 435 (1976)