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High court considers overseas weapons case

| Thursday, Nov. 4, 2004, 12:00 p.m.

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court considered Wednesday whether people convicted of a felony crime overseas can be barred from owning a gun in the United States, with the argument at times centering on how the absent Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist might rule.

The case involves Gary Sherwood Small, of Export, Westmoreland County, who answered "no" to a felony conviction question on a federal form when he bought a handgun in 1998, even though he had been convicted in Japan for violating weapons laws.

The eight justices went about their normal business of hearing arguments and bantered lightheartedly at times. Rehnquist, meanwhile, missed a third day after revealing Monday he is undergoing treatment for thyroid cancer, news that has prompted intense retirement speculation.

U.S. law forbids felons from owning guns, with a few exceptions for antitrust and trade violations. At issue in the case is whether Congress meant to include foreign convictions when it criminalized firearm possession by anybody convicted in "any court."

"I'm going to ask a question the chief justice would ask if he were here because he always asked it," said Justice Antonin Scalia. "If you had to pick your best case in interpreting the word 'any,' what would it be?"

Government lawyer Patricia Millett responded that the Supreme Court had always given the word "any" a broad meaning to help promote gun safety, before Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg jumped in, citing a case Rehnquist authored that she said suggested otherwise.

"When Congress legislates, it usually is thinking only about the United States," she said, contending that lawmakers never contemplated foreign convictions. "The chief made the point."

Rehnquist has reserved the right to rule on the cases heard this week based on the written briefs and transcripts of the oral argument. Still, some Supreme Court observers have said a Bush re-election might prompt the conservative justice's decision to retire after 32 years on the high court.

Small, 58, a former Edgewood police officer, was indicted in 2000 for lying on the form and for illegally owning two pistols and 335 rounds of ammunition. He later entered a conditional guilty plea, pending the outcome of the Supreme Court ruling.

Small's attorney, Paul D. Boas, argued yesterday that the gun law shouldn't apply to foreign crimes, noting that other sections in the statute referred only to U.S. convictions when it created the exceptions for antitrust and trade violations.

"We can't ignore the entire statutory scheme here, which time and time again refers to domestic matters," Boas said.

To Scalia's question about the best case that Rehnquist would want to know, Boas said he would have to think about it. "He asked a good question," Boas jokingly responded.

A ruling is expected by July.

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