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Rule of Lenity Applied to Definition of "Antique Firearm" in Unregistered Shotgun Case

In United States v. Introcaso, __ F.3d __, 2007 WL 3104382 (filed October 25, 2007), the Court reversed the defendant’s conviction for possessing an unregistered firearm – a 19th-century shotgun that had been hanging in his living room, holding that the definition of "antique firearm" under the statute, 26 U.S.C. § 5845(g), is ambiguous and applying the rule of lenity in favor of the defendant.

The parties agreed that the shotgun was manufactured before 1898, and also agreed that its measurements met the statutory requirements for a firearm. The case turned on the language in the definition exempting firearms "using fixed ammunition manufactured in or before 1898, for which ammunition is no longer manufactured in the United States and is not readily available in the ordinary channels of commercial trade." The government argued that although the 18.2-millimeter shot made for guns like the defendant’s is no longer available, the gun could fire 12-gauge shotgun shells, which are currently commercially available.

The Court found that the term "for" in the phrase "for which ammunition is no longer manufactured" is susceptible to two readings: specifically designed for or able to be used in. The statutory purposes – regulation of guns to control violence and avoiding undue burdens on museums and collectors – do not favor one reading over the other. The Court rejected the analysis of a Second Circuit case, United States v. Tribunella, 749 F.2d 104, 109 (2d Cir. 1984), which concluded that it was "more likely" that Congress intended to prioritize decreasing gun violence and applied the second reading (able to be used in). In so doing, the Court discussed the rule of lenity at length, decided not to "guess" at the meaning of the statute, and held that because the ammunition specifically designed for this shotgun was no longer manufactured, it was an antique firearm and did not need to be registered.

Judge Ackerman, district judge sitting by designation, dissented on the basis that "the Second Circuit’s reasonable construction of § 5845(g) . . . comports with the statute's plain text and congressional intent."

The Court rejected the defendant’s sufficiency of the evidence challenge to a second count charging possession of unregistered destructive devices (hand grenades) because although Introcaso had been barred from going to the house where the items were discovered due to a protective order, he was the lessee of record, had occupied the house as recently as a week before, had been seen with similar devices, and his wife’s keys did not work to open the locked cabinet in which the items were stored. The Court also rejected the defendant’s challenge to the reasonableness of his 46-month sentence because the district court complied with the Gunter three-step process.

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