The blog has discussed this issue before, and the last time, the case went all the way to the Supreme Court.
This time, in United States v. Fries, a defendant's conviction was reversed for insufficient evidence:
Fries did not object to the proposed jury instruction, either at the charge conference or at trial, on the ground that it did not require the government to prove that the buyer of the firearm did not possess an FFL. Nor did Fries file a motion for judgment of acquittal at the close of the government’s case, at the close of all the evidence, or in a post-trial motion.
Fries filed a notice of appeal, but soon thereafter his attorney filed a motion to withdraw as counsel and an Anders brief, contending that a review of the record revealed no arguable issue of merit upon which he could proceed in good faith. A member of this Court subsequently denied the motion to withdraw and ordered further briefing on the following two issues:
(1) whether the district court effectively removed the burden of proof regarding an element of the 18 U.S.C. § 922(a)(5) offense by instructing the jury that the sale of a firearm to a licensed dealer was an exception to the prohibition on sales to non-residents that did not apply in the case; and (2) whether the evidence was insufficient to convict when no evidence was presented as to whether the buyer of the firearm was a licensed dealer.
In keeping with that directive, Fries now argues that because there is insufficient evidence to support a finding that Visnovske did not have an FFL when Fries sold him the firearm at issue in Count II, his conviction should be reversed. He also argues in the alternative that because the trial judge instructed the jury that transferee’s licensure status was an exception to criminal liability under
§ 922(a)(5) rather than an essential element of the crime, the jury instructions erroneously relieved the government of its burden to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the person to whom Fries allegedly sold the Kimber firearm charged in Count II of the indictment (Visnovske) did not possess an FFL.
Ultimately the Court rules for the defense:
It is no answer to say that the particular element at issue here—the licensure status of the transferee for purposes of § 922(a)(5)—is unimportant or somehow a technicality: our charge as arbiters of the law does not turn upon the potential for intrigue presented by the particular plot or cast of characters of a given case. Even where the defendant fails to move for acquittal and our review of the record is at its most charitable, in the end the responsibility to provide some scintilla of evidence regarding each element of a crime falls squarely on the government. Because the government failed to make that minimal showing, Fries’s conviction must fall.