Watson pled guilty to using a firearm during and in relation to a drug trafficking crime, a violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1)(A). Watson had traded drugs to an undercover agent in exchange for a handgun. Watson specifically reserved the right to appeal whether this factual basis was sufficient to support his conviction for use of a firearm under the statute, and on appeal argued that the statute should not apply because government agents first proposed trading drugs for the handgun, that he controlled the handgun for only moments before his arrest, and that he could not have used the handgun because it was unloaded.
The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction based on its prior precedent. In previous cases, the Supreme Court has held that providing a gun as payment for drugs is "use" of a weapon within the meaning of the statute, Smith v. United States, and that “use” of a firearm under § 924(c) means “active employment,” Bailey v. United States. The circuit courts have split over the question whether circumstances similar to Watson's qualify as "use" under the statute.
18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1)(A) criminalizes the “use” of a firearm during and in relation to a drug trafficking offense and imposes a mandatory consecutive sentence of at least five years’ imprisonment. In Bailey v. United States, 516 U.S. 137 (1995), this Court held that “use” of a firearm under § 924(c) means “active employment.” Id. at 144. The question presented in this case is:
Whether mere receipt of an unloaded firearm as payment for drugs constitutes “use” of the firearm during and in relation to a drug trafficking offense within the meaning of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(l)(A) and this Court’s decision in Bailey.