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On Tuesday, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in perhaps the most important Second Amendment case it will ever confront. In United States v. Rahimi, the justices must answer whether the new test for permissible gun regulations, as set forth in the Bruen decision in 2022, invalidates a law that takes guns away from those who have been placed under domestic violence protection orders. The connection between domestic abuse and gun violence is well established. The implications of allowing domestic abusers access to firearms are not speculative. But if the court follows the lead of a federal appeals court that heard the case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, gun regulations that remove access to weapons as a result of such an adjudication would not be justified as “consistent with the Nation’s historical traditions.” In essence, Rahimi raises the question of whether America plans to just keep giving guns to every last violent and abusive man who has attacked a domestic partner on the simple theory that domestic violence had no place in originalist thinking.
On this week’s Amicus podcast, I spoke with Shannon Watts, gun activist, organizer, and founder of Moms Demand Action—the grassroots gun safety group created in the wake of the Sandy Hook murders—about the connection between gun possession, domestic abuse, mass shootings, and flaccid originalist thinking. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Dahlia Lithwick: You’ve been really clear about saying that Rahimi is emblematic of the problem, but Rahimi is not the problem. This case has the potential to make things much, much worse, but they’re already pretty grim post-Bruen. Zackey Rahimi is pretty much the poster boy for “why shouldn’t every single person who wants to own a gun in a civil society get to wave one around.”
There was new reporting this week from HuffPost that he’s facing a total of 11 criminal charges in Texas. They found video, prosecutors say, that shows Rahimi pulling a gun and firing in public in these road-rage episodes.
All this goes some way to explaining why gun rights groups are trying to keep Zackey Rahimi himself at arm’s length. This is not their dream plaintiff. But I just want to ask you, as somebody who works in this space, is he really an outlier? We have very, very good data on the connection between adjudicated domestic abusers and violence against women and lethality for women. This is hardly an outlier case. Men do this to women all the time.
Shannon Watts: That’s absolutely right. In fact, in about half of the cases where domestic violence petitions are granted, guns are present, right? And so that makes the threat of injury or death exponentially higher. And only 21 states have laws that force these domestic abusers to relinquish their firearms—even though these people are deemed to be a risk. And we know 70 women are shot and killed by intimate partners, either former or current, every single month in this country. That is a crisis. We have watched this play out over the last decade.
We make it extremely easy for domestic abusers to get guns. Over two dozen states now have something called permitless carry, thanks to the gun lobby, which means you don’t need to undergo a background check or safety training to carry a hidden, loaded handgun in public. So if you’re a prohibited purchaser in those states, you can still have easy access to guns. Even without this decision on the Rahimi case, women are incredibly vulnerable to gun violence, and you know what’s interesting, also, is this is a system made by men to benefit men.
Sometimes our court watchers, our volunteers will go into the courts. And what we notice is that even in those states where you are required to surrender your firearms, if you are a domestic abuser, sometimes the judge, mostly white male judges, will not even check the box to say that he asked the person, the abuser, if they have guns and whether they relinquish them. So the system is designed, it’s set up, against women, ultimately.
But, you know, in this case, Rahimi pled guilty. Even the 5th Circuit held up his conviction originally. It was only on appeal that it was overturned, and it was only because of the Bruen decision. And this is sort of par for the course when it comes to how the gun industry feels about women. I can remember when I first started doing this work, I would see press releases from the NRA that said, “We don’t support disarming domestic abusers because sometimes women lie about abuse.” Sometimes they didn’t use the word “lie,” it was couched more vaguely than that. But the idea was: We can’t trust women. We can only trust men.
There’s this whole bucket of anxieties that are packed into the debate we’re having about the Second Amendment. We’re having this arcane academic debate about originalism and what were the statutes on the books. But as you’re saying, it’s not that. I mean, part of the reason we wanted you here and not a law professor is because inside that bucket of anxieties is all this stuff about how women lie. And [women] have all the power in relationships, and men don’t get sufficient due process, and they need to have their gun in order to feel powerful in the world.
And I think what you’re doing is saying that centered nowhere in this discussion—this very dry academic discussion—is the experience of women. And you’ve said some of the statistics, but let’s just put them out there: Women in the United States are 11 times more likely to be killed with a firearm than women in other high-income countries. Female intimate partners are more likely to be killed with a gun than any other means combined. The presence of a gun, as you said, increases the risk of homicide for women in domestic violence situations by 500 percent. One in four women in the United States has been the victim of severe domestic violence. In her lifetime, one in three women in the United States has experienced rape, stalking, or domestic violence.
We can go on and on and on, but this is all the stuff that is invisible when the U. S. Supreme Court looks at a gun regulation. It was the kind of stuff, by the way, that was invisible to the court when it overturned Roe—the real-life, lived experience of women. How guns inflect on their safety in this country is the thing that seems to be of no interest to at least the six-justice conservative supermajority on the Supreme Court today.
Part of the reason I wanted to start Moms Demand Action was because I felt women needed a voice. You know, we’re the majority of the voting public, we’re the majority of the public. And so when we use our voices and our votes—we’ve seen this over and over again—we can sway elections, we can sway public opinion. I think we’re seeing that with abortion, after the overturning of abortion rights in this country.
But we represent something like 25 percent of the 500,000 elected positions in this country. We’re only about 5 percent of Fortune 1,000 CEOs. So we aren’t making the laws and the policies that protect our families and our communities. In a lot of different nonprofit organizations, often you see women doing what I call the unglamorous heavy lifting of grassroots activism. They get the spaces and they make the snacks and then men sort of get the spotlight or set the strategy and take the spotlight.
I wanted to create an organization where women do it all, soup to nuts. So many of our volunteers have either had loved ones stolen from them because of domestic violence, or they themselves are survivors of domestic gun violence. Who better to be doing this work? And we have an election right around the corner—we have elections this year, but also big elections next year. And so the work doesn’t stop. Just because you lose maybe a legislative cycle or the wrong people are appointed to a court, we have to play the long game. I do think that Moms Demand Action has been such an important way for women to learn the skills of advocacy, and as you mentioned earlier, to decide, “I don’t just want to shape policy, but I want to make it.” And that’s why hundreds of our volunteers are now lawmakers.