Supreme Court justices signaled Tuesday they’re unwilling to strike down a provision in federal law that bans domestic abusers from owning firearms, as the court hears its first major gun rights case since its 2022 ruling that overhauled how firearms can be regulated—and suggests that despite the sweeping nature of that ruling, they’re still willing to limit who can access guns.
The court heard oral arguments Tuesday in United States v. Rahimi, which concerns the constitutionality of a federal statute that bars people from owning guns if they have domestic violence restraining orders against them.
The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Zackey Rahimi—who carried out a series of shootings while he had such an order against him—based on the Supreme Court’s 2022 ruling in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen, which made it harder to regulate guns by requiring that gun control laws be “consistent with this Nation’s historical tradition of firearm regulation” and be in line with historical laws governing guns.
Justices appeared broadly skeptical of Matthew Wright, the attorney representing Rahimi, with Justice Amy Coney Barrett at one point saying she was “so confused” over his argument and also questioning why he was protesting Rahimi’s ability to possess firearms, but not the fact that his handgun license was also suspended when he had a protective order imposed on him.
Justice Neil Gorsuch questioned Wright claiming there are no due process rights in proceedings over protective orders for domestic violence, asking him, “Is that really the position you want to take?”
Justice Elena Kagan said Wright appeared to be “running away from your argument … because the implications of your argument are just so untenable, that you have to say ‘no, that’s not really my argument.’”
Chief Justice John Roberts questioned Wright about whether he believed his client—who went on a shooting spree while a restraining order was in place—was a dangerous person, and when the attorney responded that would depend on what “dangerous” means here, Roberts responded, “Well, it means someone who’s shooting, you know, at people. That’s a good start.”
What To Watch For
The Supreme Court will issue its ruling in the case sometime before the court’s term wraps up in June 2024. In addition to U.S. v. Rahimi, the court also announced Friday it intends to take up another major gun control issue with two cases concerning whether “bump stocks,” which allow semi automatic rifles to function as machine guns, can be legally banned. The court still hasn’t scheduled when it will hear oral arguments in that case. Additionally, the court will hear a more tangential gun rights case with National Rifle Association v. Vullo, a First Amendment dispute brought by the NRA after the head of New York’s Department of Financial Services urged banks and insurance companies to stop doing business with gun rights organizations.
Rahimi was indicted for carrying out five shootings in Texas between December 2020 and January 2021, which he challenged by arguing the statute prohibiting him from owning guns was unconstitutional. The Fifth Circuit initially ruled against him before reversing course following the Supreme Court’s Bruen ruling, prompting the Biden administration to ask the high court to take up the case. The appeals court’s ruling is part of a broader slew of decisions that have been impacted by the Bruen ruling, as the high court’s opinion significantly upended how guns can be regulated by requiring laws to be in line with historical precedents from the U.S.’ founding. More than a dozen state and federal laws have been wholly or partially invalidated in court so far as a result of the court’s ruling, according to a 2023 study published in the Duke Law Journal. U.S. v. Rahimi marks the court’s first major gun control case since Bruen, and is largely viewed as a precedent for how the court will interpret that decision to apply to other gun restrictions going forward.
54.1%. That’s the share of domestic homicides, defined as being committed by family members or romantic partners, that involve a firearm, according to a 2020 study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law. Firearm use was also associated with a 70.9% increase in there being additional victims in domestic homicides, versus a 38.7% increase in additional victims for nondomestic homicides. Homicides carried out by intimate partners accounts for nearly one in seven homicides globally, according to the study.
Domestic violence is also intertwined with the threat of mass shootings. According to a 2021 study published in the journal Injury Epidemiology, shooters in 68.2% of mass shootings between 2014 and 2019 either killed a partner or family member or had a history of domestic violence.
Questions and Answers on U.S. v. Rahimi, the Major Gun Case Before the Supreme Court During its 2023–2024 Term (Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health)