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Law Tightened That Adds Time For Drug Dealers With Guns

Thu., Dec. 7, 1995

In a rare victory for convicted drug criminals, the Supreme Court Wednesday narrowed a key federal law that adds an extra five-year prison term for a drug dealer who “uses or carries” a gun.

Until Wednesday, prosecutors and most federal courts have imposed that extra punishment if a weapon is found in the drug dealer’s car, in a locked trunk or even a closet in his home.

If the weapon was “accessible” to a drug trafficker, it was used in the commission of his crimes because it provided protection, prosecutors said.

But in a unanimous ruling, the Supreme Court threw out that definition as too broad.

From now on, a criminal must hold, brandish or fire the weapon to get the extra punishment, the justices said. The “mere possession” of a gun is not enough, they added.

A U.S. Justice Department spokesman could not offer a precise figure on how many would be affected by the ruling, but it was certainly “in the hundreds,” he said.

Inmates who are serving time also could seek to shorten their term based on the decision.

Though the outcome may seem surprising for a generally conservative high court, the outcome probably has less to do with ideology than semantics.

If Congress wanted to punish gun possession by drug criminals, it would have written the word “possess” rather than “use,” the court said.

The dictionary “definitions of ‘use’ imply action and implementation,” said Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, speaking for the court.

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