Sonzinsky v. United States

From  Guns in American Society: An Encyclopedia of History, Politics, Culture, and the Law (ABC/Clio: 1st ed. 2002). 

By Dave Kopel

Sonzinsky allowed Congress to use its tax power in order to create gun control laws. Decided in 1937, Sonzinksy upheld the National Firearm Act, which imposed tax and registration requirements on machine guns, short shotguns, and some other weapons. In 1994, the Supreme Court's decision in the Kurth Ranch case backed away from Sonzinsky's theory that the tax power can always be used as a criminal law power.

The United States Constitution grants Congress the power to legislate only on certain subjects. (<1:place w:st="on">U.S. Const., article I, sect. 8.) General power over criminal law is not among these enumerated powers. Sonzinsky is most permissive Supreme Court case allowing Congress to use its "Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts, and Excises," for purposes wholly unrelated to raising revenue.

National alcohol prohibition in the 1920s encouraged the development of organized crime; both bootleggers and bank robbers frequently used machine guns. In 1934, President Franklin Roosevelt encouraged Congress to enact national gun control legislation. The legislation would use the tax power as a means to impose near-prohibitory controls on machine guns and handguns. (The National Rifle Association dropped its opposition to the proposal, following a compromise in which handguns were removed from the bill.)

The National Firearms Act of 1934 (NFA) imposed a $200 per gun tax on the transfer of machine guns, short shotguns, short rifles, silencers, and certain other weapons. The NFA provided a mechanism for registration of owners of these guns, ostensibly to be sure that they paid the tax. The $200 transfer tax was intended to wipe out machine gun ownership, since the tax exceeded the cost of a machine gun, and, indeed, was more than many people earned in an entire month. But after World War II, the effect of inflation on the price level meant that the tax became considerably less onerous than was intended.

Sonzinsky was a direct challenge to the National Firearms Act. A gun dealer argued that the NFA's provisions relating to sellers of NFA firearms were unconstitutional because their purpose was quite obviously not taxation. The NFA was not enacted to raise revenue for the government, but to impose regulations in the guise of a tax.

In a unanimous opinion written by Chief Justice Harlan Fiske Stone, the Supreme Court announced that it did not care. The Court would not "speculate" about the "hidden motives" behind tax legislation (even though Congressional non-tax motives were plainly stated during the enactment of the bill). Since the NFA brought in a little bit of revenue, the NFA was a legitimate use of the tax power.

The mid-1930s were years of intense conflict pitting the Supreme Court against the President and Congress. As the President demanded and Congress enacted legislation taking federal powers far beyond the literal language of the Constitution and the intent of the framers, a slim majority of the Court resisted, striking down much New Deal legislation as unconstitutional.

By 1937, the Supreme Court had lost the institutional will to continue the struggle. Sonzinsky was among a series of late-1930s cases in which the Court majority announced that the Court was, in essence, abandoning any effort to require that Congress only exercise the powers granted to Congress by the Constitution. Supreme Court submission to Congress's expansive reading of Congressional powers continued for the next several decades.

While some earlier cases had allowed a certain amount of use of the tax power for non-tax purposes, Sonzinsky announced that Congress could now proceed free of judicial restraint. The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 was speedily enacted, and today the Internal Revenue Code contains many thousands of provisions designed to control behavior, rather than to raise revenue.

Today, many federal gun control laws are contained in the amended version of the National Firearms Act, 26 U.S. Code sect. 5801, et seq. In addition to machine guns, short shotguns, and short rifles, the amended NFA covers various "destructive devices" such as grenades. (For ordinary guns, most federal laws are contained in 18 U.S. Code 920, et seq., which is enacted under Congressional power "to regulate Commerce. . .among the several States." The first use of the interstate commerce power to regulate intrastate firearms behavior was the federal Gun Control Act of 1968.)

In the 1990s, the Supreme Court began to edge away from the unlimited legislative power which decisions from the 1930s and subsequent decades had endorsed. (Lopez and Printz, q.v., are both examples of this trend.) In the 1994 case of Kurth Ranch, a majority of the Court ruled that a Montana marijuana tax was enacted for the purpose of punishment, not taxation. And therefore, after punishing people for violating the Montana marijuana criminal laws, Montana could not subsequently collect the marijuana tax from them; since the tax was really punishment, the second punishment would violate the constitutional ban on double jeopardy. (The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which is made applicable to the states via the Fourteenth Amendment, prohibits the same sovereign from punishing a person twice for the same crime.) While Kurth Ranch does not formally overrule Sonzinsky, Kurth Ranch does implicitly repudiate Sonzinsky's theory that the Court cannot pay attention to obvious legislative motives when the tax power is used for non-tax purposes. 


Sonzinksy v. United States, 300 U.S. 506 (1937).

Montana Department of Revenue v. Kurth Ranch, 511 U.S. 767 (1994).

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