Federal law makes it a crime to “use” a gun during a drug offense. But what if an unloaded gun is merely payment for the drugs? The Christian Science Monitor says that is the question set for argument at the Supreme Court next Tuesday in the case of a Louisiana man who traded 24 doses of the prescription drug OxyContin for a .50 caliber Desert Eagle pistol. At issue in Watson v. U.S. is how to define the word “use” in a statute that outlaws the “use” of a gun in a drug crime.
It is becoming common in sting operations for undercover agents to suggest a gun as a form of payment in a drug deal. Under the law as written by Congress, the gun adds an automatic five years in prison – and sometimes much more – to any drug charges. The Supreme Court case involves Michael Watson of Louisiana, who agreed to provide drugs to an undercover agent in exchange for a handgun he wanted for protection. Prosecutors charged him with “using” a gun during a drug-trafficking offense – a crime with a five-year minimum mandatory sentence. the theory was that when the unloaded pistol was “used” as payment for the drugs, it was used in a way that triggered additional criminal liability.