Gun safety and domestic violence prevention advocates were set to rally at the Supreme Court. Gabby Giffords, the former
congresswoman from Arizona who was shot in 2011, was expected to speak,
WASHINGTON − The Supreme Court is hearing arguments Tuesday in a case challenging a law banning domestic abusers from owning guns, pushing the high court into a thorny Second Amendment battle a year after its conservative majority handed down a landmark decision that’s threatened gun laws across the nation.
In one of the most closely watched cases of the year, a Texas man named Zackey Rahimi is asking the Supreme Court to throw out his conviction under a federal law that bars people from possessing guns if they are the subject of a domestic violence restraining order. The court’s decision, expected next year, could have sweeping implications for other gun laws if it clarifies the legal standard by which those prohibitions should be judged.
“Guns and domestic abuse are a deadly combination,” U.S. Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar, who is representing the Biden administration and defending the federal law, told the justices in opening remarks. “Throughout our nation’s history, legislatures have disarmed those who have committed serious criminal conduct or whose access to guns poses a danger.”
Prelogar faced sharp early questioning from members of the court’s conservative wing about the scope of its argument that people are irresponsible or not law abiding can have their guns confiscated. Many of those questions appeared to geared toward how to limit the scope of a decision.
“Would you just briefly define what you mean by ‘law abiding’ and ‘responsible,'” Justice Clarence Thomas said.
“Is someone who drives 30 miles an hour in a 25 mile an hour zone, does that person qualify as law abiding or not?” pressed Chief Justice John Roberts. “What seems irresponsible to some people might seem like, ‘Well, that’s not a big deal’ to others.”
Prelogar said that the “not responsible” category applies to those whose “possession of firearms would pose an unusual danger beyond the ordinary citizen with respect to harm to themselves or harm to others.”
J. Matthew Wright, an assistant federal public defender in Texas who is representing Rahimi, said the Biden administration seemed to be ignoring the recent Supreme Court precedents expanding gun rights.
“It feels like what the government is doing is looking down the dark well of American history and seeing only a reflection of itself,” Wright told the justices.
But the court’s liberal wing pressed Wright on just how clear the historical tradition had to be in order for a gun prohibition to survive under the Second Amendment.
“Two hundred some years ago, the problem of domestic violence was conceived very differently,” Justice Elena Kagan told Wright. “People had a different understanding of the harm. People had a different understanding of the right of government to try to prevent the harm.”
Hundreds rally outside the Supreme Court
Underscoring the significance of the case, hundreds of gun safety and domestic violence prevention advocates rallied outside the Supreme Court ahead of the arguments, holding signs that read “Moms demand action” or “students demand action” on gun control. Among the people expected to speak: Gabby Giffords, the former Democratic congresswoman from Arizona who was shot in 2011 and has since become a leading gun control advocate.
“The Court has a choice to make: give the gun lobby what they want in their all-out assault on public safety, or protect survivors,” said Angela Ferrell-Zabala, executive director of Moms Demand Action. “The choice should be simple – the Supreme Court must reverse the Rahimi decision.”
Even Second Amendment rights groups acknowledge that Rahimi, who was involved in five shootings between 2020 and 2021, should not have access to guns. In 2019, Rahimi pulled out a gun and fired at a passerby who witnessed him dragging his girlfriend through a parking lot. Months later, after getting into an accident, he repeatedly shot at the other driver. In 2021, he fired several times after a friend’s credit card was declined at a burger joint.
But those groups, including the National Rifle Association, argue that Rahimi should have his guns confiscated only after he has been convicted of the crimes. The federal law that bars people from owning guns because of a restraining order, those groups say, is inconsistent with the way courts have historically viewed punishment.
“Rahimi should not only lose his Second Amendment liberties, but he should also lose all of his liberties − if the allegations against him are ultimately proven true with sufficient due process,” the National Rifle Association told the Supreme Court in a brief last month. “But constitutional safeguards cannot be set aside to obtain those ends.”
The historical view will be central to the discussion Tuesday. That’s because the Supreme Court handed down a major decision just last year in which a majority of the court said that state and federal gun regulations must be “consistent with this nation’s historical tradition of firearm regulation” to survive court challenges.
While the law made no reference to guns and domestic violence at the time of the nation’s founding, gun control groups say there is plenty of history around the idea of states banning dangerous people possessing guns. That, they argue, should be enough to uphold Rahimi’s conviction and protect similar gun prohibitions.
Advocates for ending domestic abuse say women are five times more likely to die from domestic violence if the abuser has access to a gun.
“I will make sure for sure this time that when I finish my time being incarcerated to stay the faithful, righteous person I am this day,” Rahimi wrote. He added that he wanted “to stay away from all firearms and weapons, and to never be away from my family again.”
The law at issue in the case also includes other prohibitions, barring guns for people who are addicted to drugs or who were convicted of felonies. While those provisions are not directly at issue in the case, they could be undermined or bolstered by the Supreme Court’s decision.