Supreme Court upholds barring guns from domestic violence suspects

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 that person. 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 and placed a restraining order against him and barred him from owning guns.

On Friday, in an 8-1 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court weighed in, ruling that protective orders can bar people accused of domestic violence from owning firearms.

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“Since the Founding, the Nation’s firearm laws have included regulations to stop individuals who threaten physical harm to others from misusing firearms,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts in the court’s opinion.

It is one of three significant gun rights cases before the court this session that impact states. In one case that involves guns and the First Amendment, the high court struck down a Trump-era ban on 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.

And in a case about executive power, the Supreme Court returned the case to a lower court after finding that Maria Vullo, a former superintendent of the New York State Department of Financial Services, likely violated the free speech rights of the National Rifle Association by pressuring banks and insurers to cut ties with the gun rights organization after the Parkland, Florida, high school massacre in 2018.

But “perhaps the most impactful” of the three cases, according to an analysis last November by the National Conference of State Legislatures, was the case involving Rahimi because it could have taken 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.

The high court’s ruling overturns that decision. At the center of the dispute are the new standards the Supreme Court set in a 2022 decision, New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen, striking down a gun law in the state that restricted people from carrying guns in public. In writing for the majority in that case, Justice Clarence Thomas, the sole dissenter in Friday’s decision, 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.’”

In Friday’s ruling, Roberts wrote that other courts misunderstood the methodology behind Bruen and said the Second Amendment guarantees access to modern-day weapons not in existence at the nation’s founding.

“These precedents were not meant to suggest a law trapped in amber,” he wrote.“The Second Amendment permits more than just regulations identical to those existing in 1791.”

Had the Supreme Court upheld the Court of Appeals’ ruling, it wouldn’t have just overturned 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 have impacted those laws as well.

Attorneys general from 23 states and the District of Columbia wrote in an amicus brief that such a ruling would have put “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.”

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.

Advocates for domestic violence survivors celebrated Friday’s decision.

“The statistics on intimate partner violence are staggering, and making firearms more accessible to individuals under a domestic violence restraining order would certainly have resulted in more death and injury,” said Bruce A. Scott, president of the American Medical Association, in a statement. “Today’s ruling brings a sigh of relief that this critical protection remains intact.”

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.”

Gun Owners of America, which also filed an amicus brief in the case, criticized the ruling.

“These restraining orders do not prove someone guilty of a violent crime, and they often are weaponized by attorneys and handed out freely by judges in divorce proceedings,” said Erich Pratt, senior vice president of the group. “However, this ruling will disarm others who have never actually committed any domestic violence.”

Thomas wrote in his dissent that no historical regulation justifies resticting guns from domestic abuse suspects. Meanwhile, justices Amy Coney Barrett, Neil Gorsuch, Ketanji Brown Jackson, Brett Kavanaugh, Sonia Sotomayor each wrote concurring opinions. Justice Elena Kagan signed on to Sotomayor’s opinion.

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