Under Senator Harry Reid’s (D-NV) gun control bill (S. 649), if somebody steals your firearm or you lose it, you can go to prison for up to five years if you have not reported the theft or loss to local police and to Attorney General Eric Holder within 24 hours.
The provision merits ridicule for treating as a felon someone who misplaces a firearm and does not report it to the police and the federal government fast enough.
Section 123 of the Reid bill adds a new provision to section 922 of title 18 of the U.S. Code:
It shall be unlawful for any person who lawfully possesses or owns a firearm that has been shipped or transported in, or has been possessed in or affecting, interstate or foreign commerce, to fail to report the theft or loss of the firearm, within 24 hours after the person discovers the theft or loss, to the Attorney General and to the appropriate local authorities.
It also amends section 924 of title 18 so that a violation of the 24-hour reporting requirement committed “knowingly” is punishable by up to five years in prison or a criminal fine, or both. To punish someone who “knowingly” violates the 24-hour rule might sound reasonable to some people—until you know what a lawyer means by the word “knowingly” when it comes to a criminal statute.
The Supreme Court said in Bryan v. U.S. in 1994 that when a federal statute punishes someone for a crime committed “willfully,” the federal government must prove at trial that the individual knew that his conduct was unlawful. However, the Court also said that, when the statute provides that the government must prove merely that the crime was committed “knowingly,” the government does not have to prove that the individual knew that his or her conduct was unlawful. Thus, an individual who knew his or her gun was missing and did not report it to local authorities and the Attorney General in 24 hours would potentially face five years in prison.
It is not reasonable to send an individual to prison for up to five years for failing to tell local authorities and the federal government, within 24 hours, that his or her firearm is lost or was stolen, given that a reasonable person would never know that failure to make such a report, let alone within 24 hours, is a crime. Even someone who has the presence of mind to report promptly to local police or the sheriff’s office that a firearm is missing would be highly unlikely to know that such a report to local authorities was not good enough and that he or she must tell the Attorney General of the United States, too.
It is one thing to assign a legal duty to a firearms owner to report missing firearms, but it is quite another thing to exercise the draconian power of the federal government to make failing in that duty a federal crime. It is doubly inappropriate to give someone prison time for failing to tell the Attorney General that his or her gun was missing, when no reasonable person would know that failing to make such a report within 24 hours was a federal crime.
Also, the drafters of the legislation failed to take sufficiently into account the nature of rural life and hunting in the United States. Some people who own firearms within the United States do not have the ability to communicate with anybody (let alone the Attorney General of the United States) within 24 hours—think, for example, of a hunter deep in the wilds of Alaska who loses a firearm in a river.
Under no circumstances should Congress make it a federal crime to fail to report a missing firearm within 24 hours to local authorities and the Attorney General. It is an unreasonable use of power to define as a federal crime conduct that no reasonable person would know was a federal crime.