[p. 602] Justice THOMAS delivered the opinion of the Court.
The National Firearms Act makes it unlawful for any person to possess a machinegun that is not properly registered with the Federal Government. Petitioner contends that, to convict him under the Act, the Government should have been required to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he knew the weapon he possessed had the characteristics that brought it within the statutory definition of a machinegun. We agree and accordingly reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals.
The National Firearms Act (Act), 26 U.S.C. §§ 5801-5872, imposes strict registration requirements on statutorily defined "firearms." The Act includes within the term "firearm" a machinegun, § 5845(a)(6), and further defines a machinegun as "any weapon which shoots, ... or can be readily restored to shoot, automatically more than one shot, without manual reloading, by a single function of the trigger," § 5845(b). Thus, any fully automatic weapon is a "firearm" within the meaning of the Act. [n. 1] Under the Act, all firearms must be registered in the National Firearms Registration and Transfer Record maintained by the Secretary of the Treasury. § 5841. Section 5861(d) makes it a crime, punishable [p. 603] by up to 10 years in prison, see § 5871, for any person to possess a firearm that is not properly registered.
At trial, BATF agents testified that when the AR-15 was tested, it fired more than one shot with a single pull of the trigger. It was undisputed that the weapon was not registered as required by § 5861(d). Petitioner testified that the rifle had never fired automatically when it was in his possession. He insisted that the AR-15 had operated only semiautomatically, and even then imperfectly, often requiring manual ejection of the spent casing and chambering of the next round. According to petitioner, his alleged ignorance of any automatic firing capability should have shielded him from criminal liability for his failure to register the weapon. He requested the District Court to instruct the jury that, to establish a violation of § 5861(d), the Government must prove [p. 604] beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant "knew that the gun would fire fully automatically." 1 App. to Brief for Appellant in No. 91-5033 (CA10), p. 42.
The District Court rejected
petitioner's proposed instruction
and instead charged the jury as follows:
"The Government need not prove the defendant knows he's dealing with a weapon possessing every last characteristic [which subjects it] to the regulation. It would be enough to prove he knows that he is dealing with a dangerous device of a type as would alert one to the likelihood of regulation." Tr. 465.
Petitioner was convicted and sentenced to five years' probation and a $5,000 fine.
The Court of Appeals affirmed. Relying on its decision in United States v. Mittleider, 835 F.2d 769 (CA10 1987), cert. denied, 485 U.S. 980, 108 S.Ct. 1279, 99 L.Ed.2d 490 (1988), the court concluded that the Government need not prove a defendant's knowledge of a weapon's physical properties to obtain a conviction under § 5861(d). 971 F.2d 608, 612-613 (CA10 1992). We granted certiorari, 508 U.S. 939, 113 S.Ct. 2412, 124 L.Ed.2d 635 (1993), to resolve a conflict in the Courts of Appeals concerning the mens rea required under § 5861(d).
Whether or not § 5861(d) requires proof that a defendant knew of the characteristics of his weapon that made it a "firearm" under the Act is a question of statutory construction. As we observed in Liparota v. United States, 471 U.S. 419, 105 S.Ct. 2084, 85 L.Ed.2d 434 (1985), "[t]he definition of the elements of a criminal offense is entrusted to the legislature, particularly in the case of federal crimes, which are solely creatures of statute." Id., at 424, 105 S.Ct. at 2087 (citing United States v. Hudson, 7 Cranch 32, 3 L.Ed. 259 [p. 605] 1812)). Thus, we have long recognized that determining the mental state required for commission of a federal crime requires "construction of the statute and ... inference of the intent of Congress." United States v. Balint, 258 U.S. 250, 253, 42 S.Ct. 301, 302, 66 L.Ed. 604 (1922). See also Liparota, supra, at 423, 105 S.Ct., at 2087.
The language of the statute, the starting place in our inquiry, see Connecticut Nat. Bank v. Germain, 503 U.S. 249, 253-254, 112 S.Ct. 1146, 1149-1150, 117 L.Ed.2d 391 (1992), provides little explicit guidance in this case. Section 5861(d) is silent concerning the mens rea required for a violation. It states simply that "[i]t shall be unlawful for any person ... to receive or possess a firearm which is not registered to him in the National Firearms Registration and Transfer Record." 26 U.S.C. § 5861(d). Nevertheless, silence on this point by itself does not necessarily suggest that Congress intended to dispense with a conventional mens rea element, which would require that the defendant know the facts that make his conduct illegal. See Balint, supra, at 251, 42 S.Ct., at 302 (stating that traditionally, "scienter" was a necessary element in every crime). See also n. 3, infra. On the contrary, we must construe the statute in light of the background rules of the common law, see United States v. United States Gypsum Co., 438 U.S. 422, 436-437, 98 S.Ct. 2864, 2873, 57 L.Ed.2d 854 (1978), in which the requirement of some mens rea for a crime is firmly embedded. As we have observed, "[t]he existence of a mens rea is the rule of, rather than the exception to, the principles of Anglo-American criminal jurisprudence." Id., at 436, 98 S.Ct., at 2873 (internal quotation marks omitted). See also Morissette v. United States, 342 U.S. 246, 250, 72 S.Ct. 240, 243, 96 L.Ed. 288 (1952) ("The contention that an injury can amount to a crime only when inflicted by intention is no provincial or transient notion. It is as universal and persistent in mature systems of law as belief in freedom of the human will and a consequent ability and duty of the normal individual to choose between good and evil").
There can be no doubt that this established concept has influenced our interpretation of criminal statutes. Indeed, we have noted that the common-law rule requiring mens rea [p. 606] has been "followed in regard to statutory crimes even where the statutory definition did not in terms include it." Balint, supra, at 251-252, 42 S.Ct., at 302. Relying on the strength of the traditional rule, we have stated that offenses that require no mens rea generally are disfavored, Liparota, supra, at 426, 105 S.Ct., at 2088, and have suggested that some indication of congressional intent, express or implied, is required to dispense with mens rea as an element of a crime. Cf. United States Gypsum, supra, at 438, 98 S.Ct., at 2874; Morissette, supra, at 263, 72 S.Ct., at 249-250.
According to the Government, however, the nature and purpose of the Act suggest that the presumption favoring mens rea does not apply to this case. The Government argues that Congress intended the Act to regulate and restrict the circulation of dangerous weapons. Consequently, in the Government's view, this case fits in a line of precedent concerning what we have termed "public welfare" or "regulatory" offenses, in which we have understood Congress to impose a form of strict criminal liability through statutes that do not require the defendant to know the facts that make his conduct illegal. In construing such statutes, we have inferred from silence that Congress did not intend to require proof of mens rea to establish an offense.
For example, in Balint, we concluded that the Narcotic Act of 1914, which was intended in part to minimize the spread of addictive drugs by criminalizing undocumented sales of certain narcotics, required proof only that the defendant knew that he was selling drugs, not that he knew the specific items he had sold were "narcotics" within the ambit of the statute. See Balint, supra, at 254, 42 S.Ct., at 303. Cf. United States v. Dotterweich, 320 U.S. 277, 281, 64 S.Ct. 134, 136, 88 L.Ed. 48 (1943) (stating in dicta that a statute criminalizing the shipment of adulterated or misbranded drugs did not require knowledge that the items were misbranded or adulterated). As we explained in Dotterweich, Balint dealt with "a now familiar type of legislation whereby penalties serve as effective means of regulation. Such legislation dispenses with the conventional [p. 607] requirement for criminal conduct--awareness of some wrongdoing." 320 U.S., at 280-281, 42 S.Ct., at 136. See also Morissette, supra, at 252-256, 72 S.Ct., at 244-246.
Such public welfare offenses have been created by Congress, and recognized by this Court, in "limited circumstances." United States Gypsum, supra, 438 U.S., at 437, 98 S.Ct., at 2873. Typically, our cases recognizing such offenses involve statutes that regulate potentially harmful or injurious items. Cf. United States v. International Minerals & Chemical Corp., 402 U.S. 558, 564-565, 91 S.Ct. 1697, 1701-1702, 29 L.Ed.2d 178 (1971) (characterizing Balint and similar cases as involving statutes regulating "dangerous or deleterious devices or products or obnoxious waste materials"). In such situations, we have reasoned that as long as a defendant knows that he is dealing with a dangerous device of a character that places him "in responsible relation to a public danger," Dotterweich, supra, at 281, 64 S.Ct., at 136, he should be alerted to the probability of strict regulation, and we have assumed that in such cases Congress intended to place the burden on the defendant to "ascertain at his peril whether [his conduct] comes within the inhibition of the statute." Balint, supra, 258 U.S., at 254, 42 S.Ct., at 303. Thus, we essentially have relied on the nature of the statute and the particular character of the items regulated to determine whether congressional silence concerning the mental element of the offense should be interpreted as dispensing with conventional mens rea requirements. See generally Morissette, supra, at 252-260, 72 S.Ct., at 244-248. [n. 3]
The Government argues that § 5861(d) defines precisely the sort of regulatory offense described in Balint. In this view, all guns, whether or not they are statutory "firearms," are dangerous devices that put gun owners on notice that they must determine at their hazard whether their weapons come within the scope of the Act. On this understanding, the District Court's instruction in this case was correct, because a conviction can rest simply on proof that a defendant knew he possessed a "firearm" in the ordinary sense of the term.
The Government seeks support for its position from our decision in United States v. Freed, 401 U.S. 601, 91 S.Ct. 1112, 28 L.Ed.2d 356 (1971), which involved a prosecution for possession of unregistered grenades under § 5861(d). [n. 4] The defendant knew that the items in his possession were grenades, and we concluded that § 5861(d) did not require the Government to prove the defendant also knew that the grenades were unregistered. Id., at 609, 91 S.Ct., at 1118. To be sure, in deciding that mens rea was not required with respect to that element of the offense, we suggested [p. 609] that the Act "is a regulatory measure in the interest of the public safety, which may well be premised on the theory that one would hardly be surprised to learn that possession of hand grenades is not an innocent act." Ibid. Grenades, we explained, "are highly dangerous offensive weapons, no less dangerous than the narcotics involved in United States v. Balint." Ibid. But that reasoning provides little support for dispensing with mens rea in this case.
Notwithstanding these distinctions, the Government urges that Freed's logic applies because guns, no less than grenades, [p. 610] are highly dangerous devices that should alert their owners to the probability of regulation. But the gap between Freed and this case is too wide to bridge. In glossing over the distinction between grenades and guns, the Government ignores the particular care we have taken to avoid construing a statute to dispense with mens rea where doing so would "criminalize a broad range of apparently innocent conduct." Liparota, 471 U.S., at 426, 105 S.Ct., at 2088. In Liparota, we considered a statute that made unlawful the unauthorized acquisition or possession of food stamps. We determined that the statute required proof that the defendant knew his possession of food stamps was unauthorized, largely because dispensing with such a mens rea requirement would have resulted in reading the statute to outlaw a number of apparently innocent acts. Ibid. Our conclusion that the statute should not be treated as defining a public welfare offense rested on the commonsense distinction that a "food stamp can hardly be compared to a hand grenade." Id., at 433, 105 S.Ct., at 2092.
Neither, in our view, can all guns be compared to hand grenades. Although the contrast is certainly not as stark as that presented in Liparota, the fact remains that there is a long tradition of widespread lawful gun ownership by private individuals in this country. Such a tradition did not apply to the possession of hand grenades in Freed or to the selling of dangerous drugs that we considered in Balint. See also International Minerals, 402 U.S., at 563-565, 91 S.Ct., at 1700-1702; Balint, 258 U.S., at 254, 42 S.Ct., at 303. In fact, in Freed we construed § 5861(d) under the assumption that "one would hardly be surprised to learn that possession of hand grenades is not an innocent act." Freed, supra, at 609, 91 S.Ct., at 1118. Here, the Government essentially suggests that we should interpret the section under the altogether different assumption that "one would hardly be surprised to learn that owning a gun is not an innocent act." That proposition is simply not supported by common experience. Guns in general are not "deleterious devices or products or obnoxious waste materials," International Minerals, [p. 611] supra, at 565, 91 S.Ct., at 1701, that put their owners on notice that they stand "in responsible relation to a public danger," Dotterweich, 320 U.S., at 281, 64 S.Ct., at 136.
The Government protests that guns, unlike food stamps, but like grenades and narcotics, are potentially harmful devices. [n. 5] Under this view, it seems that Liparota's concern for criminalizing ostensibly innocuous conduct is inapplicable whenever an item is sufficiently dangerous-- that is, dangerousness alone should alert an individual to probable regulation and justify treating a statute that regulates the dangerous device as dispensing with mens rea. But that an item is "dangerous," in some general sense, does not necessarily suggest, as the Government seems to assume, that it is not also entirely innocent. Even dangerous items can, in some cases, be so commonplace and generally available that we would not consider them to alert individuals to the likelihood of strict regulation. As suggested above, despite their potential for harm, guns generally can be owned in perfect innocence. Of course, we might surely classify certain categories of guns--no doubt including the machineguns, sawed-off shotguns, and artillery pieces that Congress has subjected to [p. 612] regulation--as items the ownership of which would have the same quasi-suspect character we attributed to owning hand grenades in Freed. But precisely because guns falling outside those categories traditionally have been widely accepted as lawful possessions, their destructive potential, while perhaps even greater than that of some items we would classify along with narcotics and hand grenades, cannot be said to put gun owners sufficiently on notice of the likelihood of regulation to justify interpreting § 5861(d) as not requiring proof of knowledge of a weapon's characteristics.
9. For example, as of 1990, 39 States allowed adult residents, who are not felons or mentally infirm, to purchase a rifle or shotgun simply with proof of identification (and in some cases a simultaneous application for a permit). See U.S. Dept. of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Identifying Persons, Other Than Felons, Ineligible to Purchase Firearms 114, Exh. B.4 (1990); U.S. Congress, Office of Technology Assessment, Automated Record Checks of Firearm Purchasers 27 (July 1991). See also M. Cooper, Reassessing the Nation's Gun Laws, Editorial Research Reports 158, 160 (Jan.--Mar. 1991) (table) (suggesting the total is 41 States); Dept. of Treasury, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, State Laws and Published Ordinances--Firearms (19th ed. 1989).
Here, there can be little doubt that, as in Liparota, the Government's construction of the statute potentially would impose criminal sanctions on a class of persons whose mental state--ignorance of the characteristics of weapons in their [p. 615] possession--makes their actions entirely innocent. The Government does not dispute the contention that virtually any semiautomatic weapon may be converted, either by internal modification or, in some cases, simply by wear and tear, into a machinegun within the meaning of the Act. Cf. United States v. Anderson, 885 F.2d 1248, 1251, 1253-1254 (CA5 1989) (en banc). Such a gun may give no externally visible indication that it is fully automatic. See United States v. Herbert, 698 F.2d 981, 986 (CA9), cert. denied, 464 U.S. 821, 104 S.Ct. 87, 78 L.Ed.2d 95 (1983). But in the Government's view, any person who has purchased what he believes to be a semiautomatic rifle or handgun, or who simply has inherited a gun from a relative and left it untouched in an attic or basement, can be subject to imprisonment, despite absolute ignorance of the gun's firing capabilities, if the gun turns out to be an automatic.
We concur in the Fifth Circuit's conclusion on this point: "It is unthinkable to us that Congress intended to subject such law-abiding, well- intentioned citizens to a possible ten-year term of imprisonment if ... what they genuinely and reasonably believed was a conventional semi-automatic [weapon] turns out to have worn down into or been secretly modified to be a fully automatic weapon." Anderson, supra, at 1254. As we noted in Morissette, the "purpose and obvious effect of doing away with the requirement of a guilty intent is to ease the prosecution's path to conviction." 342 U.S., at 263, 72 S.Ct., at 249. [n. 11] We are reluctant to impute that purpose to [p. 616] Congress where, as here, it would mean easing the path to convicting persons whose conduct would not even alert them to the probability of strict regulation in the form of a statute such as § 5861(d).
The potentially harsh penalty attached to violation of § 5861(d)--up to 10 years' imprisonment--confirms our reading of the Act. Historically, the penalty imposed under a statute has been a significant consideration in determining whether the statute should be construed as dispensing with mens rea. Certainly, the cases that first defined the concept of the public welfare offense almost uniformly involved statutes that provided for only light penalties such as fines or short jail sentences, not imprisonment in the state penitentiary. See, e.g., Commonwealth v. Raymond, 97 Mass. 567 (1867) (fine of up to $200 or six months in jail, or both); Commonwealth v. Farren, 91 Mass. 489 (1864) (fine); People v. Snowburger, 113 Mich. 86, 71 N.W. 497 (1897) (fine of up to $500 or incarceration in county jail).
As commentators have pointed out, the small penalties
to such offenses logically complemented the absence of a mens rea
In a system that generally requires [p. 617] a "vicious will" to
a crime, 4 W. Blackstone, Commentaries *21, imposing severe punishments
for offenses that require no mens rea would seem incongruous. See
Sayre, Public Welfare Offenses, 33 Colum.L.Rev. 55, 70 (1933).
some courts justified the absence of mens rea in part on the basis that
the offenses did not bear the same punishments as "infamous crimes,"
House Dept. v. McDevitt, 215 N.Y. 160, 168, 109 N.E. 88, 90 (1915)
J.), and questioned whether imprisonment was compatible with the
culpability required for such regulatory offenses. See, e.g.,
ex rel. Price v. Sheffield Farms- Slawson-Decker Co., 225 N.Y. 25,
121 N.E. 474, 477 (1918) (Cardozo, J.); id., at 35, 121 N.E., at
478 (Crane, J., concurring) (arguing that imprisonment for a crime that
requires no mens rea would stretch the law regarding acts mala
beyond its limitations). Similarly, commentators collecting the early
have argued that offenses punishable by imprisonment cannot be
to be public welfare offenses, but must require mens rea. See R.
Perkins, Criminal Law 793-798 (2d ed. 1969) (suggesting that the
should be the starting point in determining whether a statute describes
a public welfare offense); Sayre, supra, at 72 ("Crimes
with prison sentences ... ordinarily require proof of a guilty
In rehearsing the characteristics of the public welfare offense, we, too, have included in our consideration the punishments imposed and have noted that "penalties commonly are relatively small, and conviction does no grave damage to an [p. 618] offender's reputation." Morissette, 342 U.S., at 256, 72 S.Ct., at 246. We have even recognized that it was "[u]nder such considerations" that courts have construed statutes to dispense with mens rea. Ibid.
Our characterization of the public welfare offense in Morissette hardly seems apt, however, for a crime that is a felony, as is violation of § 5861(d). [n. 16] After all, "felony" is, as we noted in distinguishing certain common-law crimes from public welfare offenses, " 'as bad a word as you can give to man or thing.' " Id., at 260, 72 S.Ct., at 248 (quoting 2 F. Pollock & F. Maitland, History of English Law 465 (2d ed. 1899)). Close adherence to the early cases described above might suggest that punishing a violation as a felony is simply incompatible with the theory of the public welfare offense. In this view, absent a clear statement from Congress that mens rea is not required, we should not apply the public welfare offense rationale to interpret any statute defining a felony offense as dispensing with mens rea. But see United States v. Balint, 258 U.S. 250, 42 S.Ct. 301, 66 L.Ed. 604 (1922).
In short, we conclude that the background rule of the common law favoring mens rea should govern interpretation of § 5861(d) in this case. Silence does not suggest that Congress dispensed with mens rea for the element of § 5861(d) at issue here. Thus, to obtain a conviction, the Government should have been required to prove that petitioner knew of the features of his AR-15 that brought it within the scope of the Act.
We emphasize that our holding is a narrow one. As in our prior cases, our reasoning depends upon a commonsense evaluation of the nature of the particular device or substance Congress has subjected to regulation and the expectations that individuals may legitimately have in dealing with the regulated items. In addition, we think that the penalty attached to § 5861(d) suggests that Congress did not intend to eliminate a mens rea requirement for violation of the section. As we noted in Morissette: "Neither this Court nor, [p. 620] so far as we are aware, any other has undertaken to delineate a precise line or set forth comprehensive criteria for distinguishing between crimes that require a mental element and crimes that do not." 342 U.S., at 260, 72 S.Ct., at 248. We attempt no definition here, either. We note only that our holding depends critically on our view that if Congress had intended to make outlaws of gun owners who were wholly ignorant of the offending characteristics of their weapons, and to subject them to lengthy prison terms, it would have spoken more clearly to that effect. Cf. United States v. Harris, 959 F.2d 246, 261 (CADC), cert. denied, 506 U.S. 932, 113 S.Ct. 362, 364, 121 L.Ed.2d 275, 277 (1992).
For the foregoing reasons, the judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.
Justice GINSBURG, with whom Justice O'CONNOR joins, concurring in the judgment.
The statute petitioner Harold E. Staples is charged with violating, 26 U.S.C. § 5861(d), makes it a crime for any person to "receive or possess a firearm which is not registered to him." Although the word "knowingly" does not appear in the statute's text, courts generally assume that Congress, absent a contrary indication, means to retain a mens rea requirement. Ante, at 1797; see Liparota v. United States, 471 U.S. 419, 426, 105 S.Ct. 2084, 2088-2089, 85 L.Ed.2d 434 (1985); United States v. United States Gypsum Co., 438 U.S. 422, 437-438, 98 S.Ct. 2864, 2873-2874, 57 L.Ed.2d 854 (1978). [n. 1] Thus, our holding in United States v. Freed, 401 U.S. 601, 91 S.Ct. 1112, 28 L.Ed.2d 356 (1971), that § 5861(d) does not require proof of knowledge that the firearm is unregistered, rested on the premise that the defendant indeed [p. 621] knew the items he possessed were hand grenades. Id., at 607, 91 S.Ct., at 1117; id., at 612, 91 S.Ct., at 1119-1120 (Brennan, J., concurring in judgment) ("The Government and the Court agree that the prosecutor must prove knowing possession of the items and also knowledge that the items possessed were hand grenades.").
Recognizing that the first reading effectively dispenses with mens rea, the Government adopts the second, contending that it avoids criminalizing "apparently innocent conduct," Liparota, supra, at 426, 105 S.Ct., at 2088, because under the second reading, "a defendant who possessed what he thought was a toy or a violin case, but which in fact was a machinegun, could not be convicted." Brief for United States 23. The Government, however, does not take adequate account of the "widespread lawful gun ownership" Congress and the States have allowed to persist in this country. See United States v. Harris, 959 F.2d 246, 261 (CADC) (per curiam), cert. denied, 506 U.S. 932, 113 S.Ct. 362, 121 L.Ed.2d 275 (1992). Given the notable lack of comprehensive regulation, "mere unregistered possession of certain types of [regulated weapons]--often [difficult to distinguish] [p. 622] from other, [non-regulated] types," has been held inadequate to establish the requisite knowledge. See 959 F.2d, at 261.
The Nation's legislators chose to place under a registration requirement only a very limited class of firearms, those they considered especially dangerous. The generally "dangerous" character of all guns, the Court therefore observes, ante, at 1800, did not suffice to give individuals in Staples' situation cause to inquire about the need for registration. Cf. United States v. Balint, 258 U.S. 250, 42 S.Ct. 301, 66 L.Ed. 604 (1922) (requiring reporting of sale of strictly regulated narcotics, opium and cocaine). Only the third reading, then, suits the purpose of the mens rea requirement--to shield people against punishment for apparently innocent activity. [n. 3]
5. The trial court instructed the
"[A] person is knowingly in possession of a thing if his possession occurred voluntarily and intentionally and not because of mistake or accident or other innocent reason. The purpose of adding the word 'knowingly' is to insure that no one can be convicted of possession of a firearm he did not intend to possess. The Government need not prove the defendant knows he's dealing with a weapon possessing every last characteristic [which subjects it] to the regulation. It would be enough to prove he knows that he is dealing with a dangerous device of a type as would alert one to the likelihood of regulation. If he has such knowledge and if the particular item is, in fact, regulated, then that person acts at his peril. Mere possession of an unregistered firearm is a violation of the law of the United States, and it is not necessary for the Government to prove that the defendant knew that the weapon in his possession was a firearm within the meaning of the statute, only that he knowingly possessed the firearm." Id., at 465.
[p. 624] Justice STEVENS, with whom Justice BLACKMUN joins, dissenting.
To avoid a slight possibility of injustice to unsophisticated owners of machineguns and sawed-off shotguns, the Court has substituted its views of sound policy for the judgment Congress made when it enacted the National Firearms Act (or Act). Because the Court's addition to the text of 26 U.S.C. § 5861(d) is foreclosed by both the statute and our precedent, I respectfully dissent.
The Court is preoccupied with guns that "generally can be owned in perfect innocence." Ante, at 1800. This case, however, involves a semiautomatic weapon that was readily convertible into a machinegun--a weapon that the jury found to be " 'a dangerous device of a type as would alert one to the likelihood of regulation.' " Ante, at 1796. These are not guns "of some sort" that can be found in almost "50 percent of American homes." Ante, at 1801. [n. 1] They are particularly dangerous--indeed, a substantial percentage of the unregistered machineguns now in circulation are converted semiautomatic weapons. [n. 2]
2. See U.S. Dept. of Justice, Attorney General's Task Force on Violent Crime: Final Report 29, 32 (Aug. 17, 1981) (stating that over an 18-month period over 20 percent of the machineguns seized or purchased by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms had been converted from semiautomatic weapons by "simple tool work or the addition of readily available parts") (citing U.S. Dept. of Treasury, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, Firearms Case Summary (Washington: U.S. Govt. Printing Office 1981)).
Contrary to the assertion by the Court, the text of the statute does provide "explicit guidance in this case." Cf. ante, at 1797. The relevant section of the Act makes it "unlawful for any person ... to receive or possess a firearm which is not registered to him in the National Firearms Registration and Transfer Record." 26 U.S.C. § 5861(d). Significantly, the section contains no knowledge requirement, nor does it describe a common-law crime.
The common law generally did not condemn acts as criminal unless the actor had "an evil purpose or mental culpability," Morissette v. United States, 342 U.S. 246, 252, 72 S.Ct. 240, 244, 96 L.Ed. 288 (1952), and was aware of all the facts that made the conduct unlawful, United States v. Balint, 258 U.S. 250, 251-252, 42 S.Ct. 301, 302, 66 L.Ed. 604 (1922). In interpreting statutes that codified traditional common-law offenses, courts usually followed this rule, even when the text of the statute contained no such requirement. Ibid. Because the offense involved in this case is entirely a creature of statute, however, "the background rules of the common law," cf. ante, at 1797, do not require a particular construction, and critically different rules of construction apply. See Morissette v. United States, 342 U.S., at 252- 260, 72 S.Ct., at 244-248.
Justice Jackson outlined one such interpretive
"Congressional silence as to mental elements in an Act merely adopting into federal statutory law a concept of crime already ... well defined in common law and statutory interpretation by the states may warrant quite contrary inferences than the same silence in creating an offense [p. 626] new to general law, for whose definition the courts have no guidance except the Act." Id., at 262, 72 S.Ct., at 249.
Although the lack of an express knowledge requirement in § 5861(d) is not dispositive, see United States v. United States Gypsum Co., 438 U.S. 422, 438, 98 S.Ct. 2864, 2874, 57 L.Ed.2d 854 (1978), its absence suggests that Congress did not intend to require proof that the defendant knew all of the facts that made his conduct illegal. [n. 3]
5. The Senate Report on the bill explained: "The gangster as a law violator must be deprived of his most dangerous weapon, the machinegun. Your committee is of the opinion that limiting the bill to the taxing of sawed-off guns and machineguns is sufficient at this time. It is not thought necessary to go so far as to include pistols and revolvers and sporting arms. But while there is justification for permitting the citizen to keep a pistol or revolver for his own protection without any restriction, there is no reason why anyone except a law officer should have a machinegun or sawed-off shotgun." S.Rep. No. 1444, 73d Cong., 2d Sess., 1-2 (1934).
7. See National Firearms Act: Hearings on H.R. 9066 before the House Committee on Ways and Means, 73d Cong., 2d Sess., 6 (1934).
"Public welfare" offenses share certain characteristics: (1) they regulate "dangerous or deleterious devices or products or [p. 629] obnoxious waste materials," see United States v. International Minerals & Chemical Corp., 402 U.S. 558, 565, 91 S.Ct. 1697, 1701, 29 L.Ed.2d 178 (1971); (2) they "heighten the duties of those in control of particular industries, trades, properties or activities that affect public health, safety or welfare," Morissette, 342 U.S., at 254, 72 S.Ct., at 245; and (3) they "depend on no mental element but consist only of forbidden acts or omissions," id., at 252-253, 72 S.Ct., at 244. Examples of such offenses include Congress' exertion of its power to keep dangerous narcotics, [n. 10] hazardous substances, [n. 11] and impure and adulterated foods and drugs [n. 12] out of the channels of commerce. [n. 13]
11. See United States v. International Minerals & Chemical Corp., 402 U.S. 558, 91 S.Ct. 1697, 29 L.Ed.2d 178 (1971).
12. See United States v. Dotterweich, 320 U.S. 277, 64 S.Ct. 134, 88 L.Ed. 48 (1943).
13. The Court in Morissette v. United States, 342 U.S. 246,
240, 96 L.Ed 288 (1952), expressing approval of our public welfare
"Neither this Court nor, so far as we are aware, any other has undertaken to delineate a precise line or set forth comprehensive criteria for distinguishing between crimes that require a mental element and crimes that do not. We attempt no closed definition, for the law on the subject is neither settled nor static." Id., at 260, 72 S.Ct., at 248 (footnotes omitted).
The National Firearms Act unquestionably is a public welfare statute. United States v. Freed, 401 U.S. 601, 609, 91 S.Ct. 1112, 1118, 28 L.Ed.2d 356 (1971) (holding that this statute "is a regulatory measure in the interest of the public safety"). Congress fashioned a legislative scheme to regulate the commerce and possession of certain types of dangerous devices, including specific kinds of weapons, to protect the health and welfare of the citizenry. To enforce this scheme, Congress created criminal penalties for certain acts and omissions. The text of some of these offenses--including the one at issue here--contains no knowledge requirement.
"[W]e have reasoned that as long as a defendant knows that he is dealing with a dangerous device of a character that places him 'in responsible relation to a public danger,' Dotterweich, supra, at 281, 64 S.Ct., at 136, he should be alerted to the probability of strict regulation, and we have assumed that in such cases Congress intended to place the burden on the defendant to 'ascertain at his peril whether [his conduct] comes within the inhibition of the statute.' Balint, 258 U.S., at 254, 42 S.Ct., at 303." Ante, at 1798.
[p. 631] We thus have read a knowledge requirement into public welfare crimes, but not a requirement that the defendant know all the facts that make his conduct illegal. Although the Court acknowledges this standard, it nevertheless concludes that a gun is not the type of dangerous device that would alert one to the possibility of regulation.
Both the Court and Justice GINSBURG erroneously rely upon the "tradition[al]" innocence of gun ownership to find that Congress must have intended the Government to prove knowledge of all the characteristics that make a weapon a statutory "firear[m]." Ante, at 1799-1800; ante, at 1805 (GINSBURG, J., concurring in judgment). We held in Freed, however, that a § 5861(d) offense may be committed by one with no awareness of either wrongdoing or of all the facts that constitute the offense. [n. 14] 401 U.S., at 607-610, 91 S.Ct., at 1117-1119. Nevertheless, the Court, asserting that the Government "gloss[es] over the distinction between grenades and guns," determines that "the gap between Freed and this case is too wide to bridge." Ante, at 1799. As such, the Court instead reaches the rather surprising conclusion that guns are more analogous to food stamps than to hand grenades. Even if [p. 632] one accepts that dubious proposition, the Court founds it upon a faulty premise: its mischaracterization of the Government's submission as one contending that "all guns ... are dangerous devices that put gun owners on notice...." Ante, at 1798 (emphasis added). Accurately identified, the Government's position presents the question whether guns such as the one possessed by petitioner " 'are highly dangerous offensive weapons, no less dangerous than the narcotics' " in Balint or the hand grenades in Freed, see ante, at 1799 (quoting Freed, 401 U.S., at 609, 91 S.Ct. at 1118).
Cases arise, of course, in which a defendant would not know that a device was dangerous unless he knew that it was a "firearm" as defined in the Act. Freed was such a case; unless the defendant knew that the device in question was a hand grenade, he would not necessarily have known that it was dangerous. But given the text and nature of the statute, it would be utterly implausible to suggest that Congress intended the owner of a sawed-off shotgun to be criminally liable if he knew its barrel was 17.5 inches long but not if he mistakenly believed the same gun had an 18-inch barrel. Yet the Court's holding today assumes that Congress intended that bizarre result.
The enforcement of public welfare offenses always entails some possibility of injustice. Congress nevertheless has repeatedly decided that an overriding public interest in health or safety may outweigh that risk when a person is dealing with products that are sufficiently dangerous or deleterious to make it reasonable to presume that he either knows, or should know, whether those products conform to special regulatory requirements. The dangerous character of the product is reasonably presumed to provide sufficient notice of the probability of regulation to justify strict enforcement against those who are merely guilty of negligent, rather than willful, misconduct.
The National Firearms Act is within the category of public welfare statutes enacted by Congress to regulate highly dangerous items. The Government submits that a conviction under such a statute may be supported by proof that the [p. 635] defendant "knew the item at issue was highly dangerous and of a type likely to be subject to regulation." Brief for United States 9. It is undisputed that the evidence in this case met that standard. Nevertheless, neither Justice THOMAS for the Court nor Justice GINSBURG has explained why such a knowledge requirement is unfaithful to our cases or to the text of the Act. Instead, following the approach of their decision in United States v. Harris, 959 F.2d 246, 260-261 (CADC) (per curiam), cert. denied sub nom. Smith v. United States, 506 U.S. 932, 113 S.Ct. 362, 121 L.Ed.2d 275 (1992), they have simply explained why, in their judgment, it would be unfair to punish the possessor of this machinegun.
The history and interpretation of the National Firearms Act supports the conclusion that Congress did not intend to [p. 636] require knowledge of all the facts that constitute the offense of possession of an unregistered weapon. During the first 30 years of enforcement of the 1934 Act, consistent with the absence of a knowledge requirement and with the reasoning in Balint, courts uniformly construed it not to require knowledge of all the characteristics of the weapon that brought it within the statute. In a case decided in 1963, then-Judge Blackmun reviewed the earlier cases and concluded that the defendant's knowledge that he possessed a gun was "all the scienter which the statute requires." Sipes v. United States, 321 F.2d 174, 179 (CA8), cert. denied, 375 U.S. 913, 84 S.Ct. 208, 11 L.Ed.2d 150 (1963).
Congress subsequently amended the statute twice, once in 1968 and again in 1986. Both amendments added knowledge requirements to other portions of the Act, but neither the text nor the history of either amendment discloses an intent to add any other knowledge requirement to the possession of an unregistered firearm offense. Given that, with only one partial exception, every federal tribunal to address the question had concluded that proof of knowledge of all the facts constituting a violation was not required for a conviction [p. 637] under § 5861(d), we may infer that Congress intended that interpretation to survive. See Lorillard v. Pons, 434 U.S. 575, 580, 98 S.Ct. 866, 870, 55 L.Ed.2d 40 (1978).
In short, petitioner's knowledge that he possessed an item that was sufficiently dangerous to alert him to the likelihood of regulation would have supported a conviction during the first half century of enforcement of this statute. Unless application of that standard to a particular case violates the Due Process Clause, [n. 24] it is the responsibility of Congress, not this Court, to amend the statute if Congress deems it unfair or unduly strict.
On the premise that the purpose of the mens rea requirement is to avoid punishing people "for apparently innocent activity," Justice GINSBURG concludes that proof of knowledge that a weapon is " 'a dangerous device of a type as would alert one to the likelihood of regulation' " is not an adequate mens rea requirement, but that proof of knowledge that the weapon possesses " 'every last characteristic' " that subjects it to regulation is. Ante, at 1805- 1806, and n. 5 (GINSBURG, J., concurring in judgment) (quoting the trial court's jury instruction).
[p. 638] Assuming that "innocent activity" describes conduct without any consciousness of wrongdoing, the risk of punishing such activity can be avoided only by reading into the statute the common-law concept of mens rea: "an evil purpose or mental culpability." Morissette, 342 U.S., at 252, 72 S.Ct., at 244. [n. 25] But even petitioner does not contend that the Government must prove guilty intent or intentional wrongdoing. Instead, the "mens rea" issue in this case is simply what knowledge requirement, if any, Congress implicitly included in this offense. There are at least five such possible knowledge requirements, four of which entail the risk that a completely innocent mistake will subject a defendant to punishment.
Justice GINSBURG treats the first, second, and third alternatives differently from the fourth and fifth. Her acceptance of knowledge of the characteristics of a statutory "firearm" as a sufficient predicate for criminal liability--despite ignorance of either the duty to register or the fact of nonregistration, or both--must rest on the premise that such knowledge would alert the owner to the likelihood of regulation, thereby depriving the conduct of its "apparen[t] innocen[ce]." Yet in the fourth alternative, a jury determines just such knowledge: that the characteristics of the weapon known to the defendant would alert the owner to the likelihood of regulation.
In short, Justice GINSBURG's reliance on "the purpose of the mens rea requirement--to shield people against punishment for apparently innocent activity," ante, at 1805, neither explains why ignorance of certain facts is a defense although [p. 640] ignorance of others is not, nor justifies her disagreement with the jury's finding that this defendant knew facts that should have caused him to inquire about the need for registration.
This case presents no dispute about the dangerous character of machineguns and sawed-off shotguns. Anyone in possession of such a weapon is "standing in responsible relation to a public danger." See Dotterweich, 320 U.S., at 281, 64 S.Ct. at 136-137 (citation omitted). In the National Firearms Act, Congress determined that the serious threat to health and safety posed by the private ownership of such firearms warranted the imposition of a duty on the owners of dangerous weapons to determine whether their possession is lawful. Semiautomatic weapons that are readily convertible into machineguns are sufficiently dangerous to alert persons who knowingly possess them to the probability of stringent public regulation. The jury's finding that petitioner knowingly possessed "a dangerous device of a type as would alert one to the likelihood of regulation" adequately supports the conviction.
I would affirm the judgment of the Court of Appeals.