Contrary to popular belief (if you believe the news media), the Supreme Court`s decision in Taylor v. United States, No. 20-1459 (June 21, 2022), had absolutely nothing to do with weakening federal gun laws. In fact, it couldn`t have done so because the case was all about whether an attempted robbery, under federal law, was a “crime of violence.”
The question before the Court was simply this:
Does Attempted Hobbs Act Robbery qualify as a “crime of violence” under 18 U.S.C. 924(c)?
The Court had to decide whether a mere attempt to commit what`s called “Hobbs Act Robbery,” under 18 U.S.C. sec 1951, was the kind of “crime of violence” that Congress had intended when it created sec 924(c) decades ago to combat the use of firearms during crimes of violence and certain drug offenses. The Court said an attempt did not rise to the level of offense that Congress had anticipated when it created sec 924(c):
Congress did not condition long prison terms on an abstract judicial inquiry into whether and to what degree this or that crime poses a risk to community peace and safety.
But didn`t the defendant in Taylor actually shoot and kill someone? That`s true. It`s alleged that the drug dealer pulled a gun and shot the defendant before he could rob him, and the defendant shot and killed the drug dealer. But the shooting had nothing to do with the questions before the Court in Taylor.
A sec 924(c) firearm offense can be charged only when the firearm is possessed, brandished, or discharged during a crime of violence or drug offense. Sec 924(c) defines a crime of violence as an offense that “has as an element the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force.” So far, it sounds like it fits with the attempted robbery in Taylor. After all, it was a literal shoot-out!
However, a federal court cannot look at how a crime was committed to determine whether it`s a crime of violence, but may only look at the “elements” of that offense to see if it matches what sec 924(c) requires: the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force. This is called the “cateogrical approach,” which the Supreme Court reaffirmed is the proper method for assessing predicate offenses under sec 924(c).
The Court agreed with the lower court that a mere attempt at what would be a crime of violence did not require the government to prove beyond a reasonable doubt any of the elements under sec 924(c). That was the only issue before the Court, and the Taylor decision did not (and could not) weaken any federal gun laws. If Congress wants to make a gun law to fit the alleged offense in Taylor, it can do so, but sec 924(c) was not the proper offense for that case. That`s all the Supreme Court decided in Taylor.
Dale Chappell is the author of hundreds of published articles on the federal criminal justice system, and the Insider`s Guide series of federal post-conviction books. He is a consultant in federal post-conviction procedure and an authority on federal sex offense issues.