The U.S. Supreme Court weighs several gun right cases

Gun Rights

In December 2019, a young man named Zackey Rahimi got into an argument with his girlfriend in a parking lot in Texas. When the woman tried to run away, he grabbed her by the wrist, knocked her down, dragged her back to his car and shoved her inside, causing her to hit her head on the dashboard.

Rahimi realized that a bystander had witnessed the incident and fired a shot at them. Meanwhile, the woman managed to get away, but Rahimi later called her and threatened to shoot her if she told anyone about the attack.

The incident made it before a Texas court, which found that Rahimi was “likely” to commit family violence again. In addition to placing a restraining order against him, the court barred him from owning guns.

Now the U.S. Supreme Court is considering the case. It is one of three significant gun rights cases before the court that will impact states. In addition to Rahimi, the high court is looking at a case that involves guns and the First Amendment and one about executive power.

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In the former, the court is weighing whether Maria Vullo, a former superintendent of the New York State Department of Financial Services, leveraged government power in a way that violated the First Amendment. According to a lawsuit brought by the National Rifle Association, Vullo crossed a constitutional line by encouraging banks and insurance companies to stop doing business with the group after the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Fla. 

In the latter case, the Supreme Court has agreed to decide whether the Trump administration had acted lawfully in banning bump stocks, the attachments that enable semiautomatic rifles to fire in sustained, rapid bursts. The administration banned them under a 1986 law largely banning machine guns following a mass shooting in Las Vegas in 2017.

But “perhaps the most impactful” of the three cases, according to an analysis by the National Conference of State Legislatures, is the case involving Rahimi. It could take away the ability of governments to bar people with restraining orders against them from possessing guns.

Ultimately, Rahimi ignored the Texas court’s order and was involved in five more shootings in the span of two months. He eventually pleaded guilty to violating federal law. But that conviction was subsequently dismissed by the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which found that a federal law that makes it a felony to possess a gun while under a domestic violence protective order violates the Second Amendment.

But a high court decision affirming the Court of Appeals’ ruling wouldn’t just overturn the federal law. Nationally, 46 states and Washington, D.C., have laws similar to the federal one barring people from possessing a gun while under a domestic violence protective order. An affirmative ruling would impact those laws as well. 

“It puts at risk domestic violence victims who may be harmed or killed by their abusers, and it hamstrings both the federal government and states in their efforts to protect their residents’ safety,” attorneys general from 23 states and the District of Columbia wrote in an amicus brief.

Being allowed to keep guns from people who are deemed a threat to commit domestic violence is a “critical one,” the states argued, citing studies showing a domestic abuser is five times more likely to murder their partner if a firearm is in the home.

The National League of Cities, the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the Municipal Lawyers Association also filed an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to allow the restriction of guns, saying that “the magnitude of the problem is distressing.” The associations noted that more than half of all women murdered in the U.S. are killed by their current or former intimate partners. 

At the center of the dispute are the new standards the Supreme Court set in a 2022 decision striking down a New York gun law that restricted people from carrying guns in public. In writing for the majority in that case, Justice Clarence Thomas said that restrictions on gun rights have to reflect “American tradition” by complying with the thought at the time of the nation’s founding.

The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit acknowledged in its decision that in the past it had found that the social benefits of the law “outweighed” the restriction on Second Amendment rights. However, the Supreme Court’s 2022 decision ”forecloses” the court’s ability to make such an “analysis.” Looking through the lens of the nation’s history, the court ruled that the federal law does not meet the Supreme Court’s new standards because prohibiting people with restraining orders is an “‘outlier that our ancestors would never have accepted.’”

The National Rifle Association in a brief urged the Supreme Court to uphold gun rights. Domestic violence, it said, was “unfortunately not taken as seriously as it should have been for much of the nation’s history. … It was not until the late 19th century that society began to consider criminal laws addressing domestic violence.”

Oral arguments were heard by the justices on Nov. 7, and an analysis of the arguments by SCOTUSblog, a publication that covers the Supreme Court, said that a majority of the justices seemed wary of the consequences of striking down the federal law.

The Supreme Court’s decision in the New York case continues to impact state attempts to regulate guns and curb gun violence. 

Most recently, a challenge to a law in California that bars people from carrying concealed guns in 26 public places, including hospitals, playgrounds, stadiums, zoos and places of worship, is winding its way through the courts.

The law was allowed to go into effect Jan. 1 as it is appealed. A U.S. district court’s ruling in December found the law went too far by banning guns in so many places that it essentially restricted the weapons in most public places instead of just in certain areas.

The judge in the case also objected to the fact that the law restricts people with permits from carrying guns, saying they “have been through a vigorous vetting and training process.”

While the Supreme Court left open the possibility of barring guns in some places, it was vague in terms of what courts would allow.

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