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U.S. Supreme Court upholds law that prevents domestic abusers from owning guns

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U.S. Supreme Court upholds law that prevents domestic abusers from owning guns

Jun 21, 2024 | 10:50 am ET
By Ariana Figueroa
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U.S. Supreme Court upholds law that prevents domestic abusers from owning guns
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A customer tries out a semi-automatic pistol at The Gun Store on Nov. 14, 2008 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

The U.S. Supreme Court Friday upheld a federal law that bars people subject to domestic violence restraining orders from owning a firearm.

In an 8-1 decision on United States v. Rahimi, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the opinion that “our Nation’s firearm laws have included provisions preventing individuals who threaten physical harm to others from misusing firearms.”

“When an individual has been found by a court to pose a credible threat to the physical safety of another, that individual may be temporarily disarmed consistent with the Second Amendment,” Roberts wrote.

Justice Clarence Thomas, a staunch advocate of the Second Amendment, was the lone dissent.

Thomas argued that the question before the court was not if someone can have their firearms taken away under the Second Amendment, but instead whether the “Government can strip the Second Amendment right of anyone subject to a protective order — even if he has never been accused or convicted of a crime. It cannot.”

The White House and gun safety advocates welcomed the long-awaited decision as a major victory.

“No one who has been abused should have to worry about their abuser getting a gun,” President Joe Biden said in a statement. “As a result of today’s ruling, survivors of domestic violence and their families will still be able to count on critical protections, just as they have for the past three decades.”

2022 decision

This was the first major test of the 2022 Supreme Court decision – New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen – that struck down a New York law limiting carrying firearms in the open in a decision from the high court that greatly expanded gun rights. Thomas wrote that decision.

Because of the Bruen decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit vacated Zackey Rahimi’s conviction on the grounds that the federal law violated his Second Amendment rights.

In 2019, Rahimi assaulted his girlfriend in Arlington, Texas, and threatened to shoot her if she told anyone, according to the Department of Justice. That led to a restraining order that suspended his handgun license and prohibited him from possessing firearms.

But Rahimi did not adhere to that order and then threatened another woman with a gun, and two months later opened fire in public five times.

J. Matthew Wright, a federal public defender in North Texas who argued for his client, Rahimi, declined to comment on the decision.

Roberts says appeals court was wrong

Roberts argued the court’s decision in Bruen does “not help Rahimi,” and said the 5th Circuit’s decision was wrong in its methodology.

Roberts said instead of reviewing the circumstances in which the federal law “was most likely to be constitutional, the panel instead focused on hypothetical scenarios where the provision might raise constitutional concerns.”

He said that lower courts have misunderstood the methodology the high court used in the Bruen decision and that those “precedents were not meant to suggest a law trapped in amber.”

Roberts said that lower courts should discern “[w]hy and how the regulation burdens” on the Second Amendment right “are central to this inquiry.”

“For example, if laws at the founding regulated firearm use to address particular problems, that will be a strong indicator that contemporary laws imposing similar restrictions of similar reasons fall within a permissible category of regulations,” he said. “As Bruen explained, a challenged regulation that does not precisely match its historical precursors ‘still may be analogous enough to pass constitutional muster.’”

Liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a concurring opinion in which she said while she agreed with the Rahimi decision, she still believed Bruen was wrongly decided. However, she added the decision “clarifies Bruen’s historical inquiry.”

“Rather than asking whether a present-day gun regulation has a precise historical analogue, courts applying Bruen should ‘conside(r) whether the challenged regulation is consistent with the principles that underpin our regulatory tradition,’” she said.

Sotomayor said in the Rahimi case, the government did not identify a “founding-era or Reconstruction-era law that specifically disarmed domestic abusers,” but that it didn’t need to because there is “shared principle” in restricting gun use by those who pose a threat.

“History has a role to play in Second Amendment analysis, but a rigid adherence to history, (particularly history predating the inclusion of women and people of color as full members of the polity), impoverishes constitutional interpretation and hamstrings our democracy,” she said.

Historical precedent

During oral arguments in November before the court, U.S. Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar, representing the Biden administration, argued that the 5th Circuit misinterpreted the Bruen decision.

She said there is historical precedent in the ability of Congress to “disarm those who are not law-abiding, responsible citizens.”

Under a 1994 federal law, anyone who has been convicted in any court of a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence,” and, or, is subject to domestic violence protective orders, is prohibited from purchasing and having possession of firearms and ammunition.

During those oral arguments, the justices – both liberal and conservative – seemed to side with Prelogar’s argument that the federal law is in line with the longstanding practice of disarming dangerous people and does not violate an individual’s Second Amendment rights.

More than half of female homicide victims are killed by current or former male intimate partners. Firearms are used in more than 50% of those homicides.

More than two dozen states have laws that prevent someone subject to an order in a domestic violence case from buying or possessing a gun and ammunition.

Some of those states include Alabama, Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia and Wisconsin.

Protecting victims

Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement the decision upheld a law that “protects victims by keeping firearms out of the hands of dangerous individuals who pose a threat to their intimate partners and children.”

“As the Justice Department argued, and as the Court reaffirmed today, that commonsense prohibition is entirely consistent with the Court’s precedent and the text and history of the Second Amendment,” Garland said.

Angela Ferrell-Zabala, the executive director of the gun safety advocacy group Moms Demand Action, said in a statement that the court’s decision will ensure that “millions across the country will be protected over the desires of gun rights extremists.”

“This is a win for the gun safety movement and another loss for the gun lobby hellbent on putting lives in danger,” Ferrell-Zabala said.

Douglas Letter, the chief legal officer of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said in a statement that he hopes lower courts will follow the advice from Friday’s ruling.

“Guns are the number one weapon of choice for domestic abusers, and there is no reason why anyone who is a known danger should be permitted access to firearms,” Letter said.