Supreme Court rules a gun need not be on a person to be 'carried' Weapon could be in trunk, glove compartment of car, court holds in 5-4 opinion

June 09, 1998|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Dividing 5-4, the Supreme Court made it much easier yesterday for federal prosecutors to convict someone of carrying a gun during drug trafficking or a violent crime.

Under federal law, a gun is carried, even if it is not in a suspect's hand or clothing but instead locked in a glove compartment, a trunk or somewhere else in a vehicle in the course of a crime, the court majority declared.

"No one doubts that one who bears arms on his person 'carries a weapon,' " Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote for the majority. "But to say that is not to deny that one may also 'carry a weapon' tied to the saddle of a horse or placed in a bag in a car."

Saying the court had consulted a stack of dictionaries, great literature, the King James version of the Bible and newspaper databases on the Internet, Breyer said the word "carry" in federal law would be given its "ordinary English meaning."

The dissenters, looking to popular movies and TV shows, including M*A*S*H, and other sources, said the word "carry" has many meanings -- including "Carry Me Back to Old Virginia."

The key, they said, was what Congress meant in writing the law.

Near enough to be used

In an opinion by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the dissenters said the word should mean having a gun only in the most threatening situations: that is, when the gun is kept close enough to a suspect to be used.

The difference between the two groups of justices was not merely semantic.

A federal law requires an extra prison sentence of up to 10 years, if one "carries a firearm" while committing "any crime of violence or drug trafficking crime."

The law's scope was challenged by a former police chief in Tickfaw, La., who was convicted of having a gun in the locked glove compartment of his pickup truck during a drug transaction, and by two Boston men who were convicted of having guns in the locked trunk of a car they took to a drug sale in Connecticut.

Each of the three was convicted of the drug crimes, and the added gun-carrying sentences were tacked on to their sentences.

The court majority's broad reading of the word "carry" contrasted with a narrow reading the court had given in 1995 to another word in the federal gun law.

To "use" a gun in a drug or violent crime under the law, the court said three years ago, meant to "actively employ" it, not just to have the weapon nearby.

Breyer's majority opinion in the new case was supported by Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Sandra Day O'Connor, John Paul Stevens and Clarence Thomas.

Joining Ginsburg's dissent were Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices David H. Souter and Antonin Scalia.

3 other cases

The court issued that ruling along with a variety of other decisions and orders as it moved toward a summer recess, probably beginning late this month.

In other actions, the court:

Ruled unanimously that the estate of a passenger killed in an airline crash over the ocean cannot collect damages for the victim's pain and suffering as the plane went down. The case involved the downing of a Korean Air Lines jet as it strayed into Soviet airspace in 1983.

Agreed to decide, at its next term starting in October, whether private individuals may sue to stop state and local agencies that receive federal money from taking actions that have a negative effect on blacks and other minorities. The case involves a claim by black residents of Chester, Pa., that state officials have placed most of the waste treatment plants in the county in black-dominated Chester.

Will spell out next term what a patient must prove to win damages from a hospital for failing to provide adequate emergency treatment. A federal "anti-dumping" law for patients provides damages for such refusal.

The case involves a lawsuit on behalf of a woman from Bardstown, Ky., who says she was not properly treated at the University of Louisville hospital after she had been run over by a truck.

Pub Date: 6/09/98

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