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Supreme Court says owning gun if convicted overseas

OK Supreme Court says ban is for domestic crimes

WASHINGTON -- People convicted of crimes overseas can own guns in the United States, the Supreme Court ruled yesterday.

In a 5-to-3 decision, the court ruled in favor of Gary Sherwood Small of Pennsylvania. The court reasoned that US law, which prohibits felons who have been convicted in ''any court" from owning guns, applies only to domestic crimes.

Justice Stephen G. Breyer, writing for the majority, said interpreting the law broadly to apply to foreign convictions would be unfair to defendants because procedural protections are often less applied in international courts. If Congress intended foreign convictions to apply, they can rewrite the law to say so specifically, he wrote.

''We have no reason to believe that Congress considered the added enforcement advantages flowing from inclusion of foreign crimes, weighing them against, say, the potential unfairness of preventing those with inapt foreign convictions from possessing guns," Breyer wrote.

He was joined by Justices John Paul Stevens, Sandra Day O'Connor, David H. Souter, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

In a dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas argued that Congress intended for foreign convictions to apply. ''Any" court literally means any court, he wrote.

''Read naturally, the word 'any' has an expansive meaning, that is, 'one or some indiscriminately of whatever kind,' " Thomas said. He was joined by Justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy.

Small had answered no to the felony conviction question on a federal form when he bought a handgun in 1998, a few days after he was paroled from a Japanese prison for violating Japan's weapons laws.

He was indicted in 2000 for lying on the form and for illegally owning two pistols and 335 rounds of ammunition.

The Bush administration had asked the court to apply the statute to foreign convictions.

The ruling, divided mostly along ideological lines, created a bit of an anomalous result for the conservatives Scalia and Thomas, who generally oppose the expanded use of international law to support decisions interpreting the Constitution.

In their opinion, Scalia and Thomas stuck to their conservative philosophy of interpreting statutes according to their strict, dictionary meaning, rather than delving into a presumed intent of Congress.

But their dissent also embraced the notion that foreign law should be incorporated more deeply into the US court system, with Thomas calling it wrong that the majority opinion effectively required Congress to be specific anytime it wanted foreign law to apply.

In another case yesterday, the Supreme Court ruled that people who cheat foreign governments of tax revenue can be prosecuted under US law for wire fraud.

In a 5-to-4 decision, the court upheld the fraud convictions for three men accused of sneaking thousands of cases of whisky, vodka, and rum into Canada from the United States and avoiding millions of dollars in Canadian taxes. Canada did not pursue the trio for tax evasion, but American prosecutors did and the three were sentenced to prison.

The US wire fraud law bars the use of interstate wires, such as phones and computers, to carry out ''any scheme" to defraud. Justices ruled US prosecutors can use the law to pursue charges when a scheme involves defrauding foreign governments, which are barred from using American courts to collect lost revenues.

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