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Actual Use Unnecessary for Lawful Sporting Purpose Exception

By Robyn Hagan Cain | Last updated on

Felons aren’t supposed to have firearms. We all know that by now. But the Sentencing Guidelines take a felon firearm possessor’s intent into account. For example, there’s a six-level sentencing reduction for a felon who possessed a firearm solely for “lawful sporting purposes.”

This week, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals shed a little light on how district courts should apply the lawful sporting purposes provision.

Rodney Mason was sentenced to 33 months for being a felon in possession of a firearm. Mason challenged the sentence, arguing that the district court erred by denying a reduction under the Guidelines' "lawful sporting purposes" provision. The problem? The district court said that Mason had to prove that he actually used each of the firearms -- there were four in this case -- for a lawful sporting purpose.

According to the Second Circuit, that's just plain wrong.

The appellate court noted that Guidelines Section 2K2.1(b)(2) and Application Note 6 cannot be read to require a showing that a defendant actually used each firearm for lawful sporting purposes. Instead, the relevant inquiry is the broader question whether, in the totality of the circumstances, a defendant possessed firearms with the intent to use them for a lawful sporting purpose. Evidence of actual use is relevant to that inquiry, and may even be dispositive, but it isn't required for the sentencing reduction.

While Mason won the Guidelines interpretation battle, he ultimately lost the sentencing war.

The Guidelines require a defendant to prove that he possessed each firearm at issue solely for lawful sporting purposes or collection. The district court found that Mason possessed four firearms, including a 12-gauge shotgun. Mason didn't challenge the finding on appeal, but he denied having possessed the shotgun -- and provided virtually no evidence as to his or anyone else's purpose for possessing it -- before the district court.

By denying mere possession, Mason failed to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that he possessed the shotgun for lawful sporting purposes. Without that proof, he was ineligible for a sentence reduction.

In these types of situations, clients either need to own their mistakes or challenge a district court's factual findings. If you're going to press the court for a lawful sporting purposes sentence reduction, make sure that you make your case for each firearm involved.

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