Supreme Court upholds law banning domestic abusers from owning guns (2024)

WASHINGTON − The Supreme Court on Friday upheld a law banning domestic abusers from owning guns, showing that a conservative court that has expanded gun rights also sees areas for limitations.

"Since the founding, our Nation’s firearm laws have included provisions preventing individuals who threaten physical harm to others from misusing firearms," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the 8-1 majority in a decision that faulted some courts for misunderstanding the court's recent moves backing gun rights.

But Justice Clarence Thomas, the lone dissenter Friday and author of one of the past key gun rights decisions, said there isn't a "single historical regulation" that justifies the ban.

Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson joined the majority but quibbled with analyzing statutes based on how they would have been viewed historically. She said a historical perspective on the Second Amendment would depend on the historians who are consulted.

'I could go on...But I won't'

“Who is protected by the Second Amendment, from a historical perspective?” Jackson wrote “I could go on – as others have. But I won’t.”

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The decision indicates the court is likely to be more flexible in applying the historical test it set in 2022 but doesn’t foreshadow how that test will be applied to other restrictions such as prohibiting non-violent felons from having guns or banning high-capacity magazines, according to Joseph Blocher, co-director of the Center for Firearms Law at Duke University School of Law.

A narrow win for the government

“I think the Supreme Court is probably going to have to take more cases going forward to resolve those issues,” Blocher said. “This is a win for the government, but in some respects, it's about the narrowest win that the government could have.”

In fact, Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in a concurring opinion that the decision leaves open the question of whether the ban on guns for those subject to a domestic violence restraining order could be challenged by someone with different circ*mstances.

The case centered on a Texas man, Zackey Rahimi, who was involved in five shootings between 2020 and 2021. Rahimi pleaded guilty to the federal crime of possessing guns while subject to a restraining order, but an appeals court threw out his conviction.

The New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals relied on the court’s blockbuster 2022 decision, NYSRPA v. Bruen, striking downa New York law thatrequiredstateresidentsto have"proper cause" to carry a handgun.

In that 6-3 opinion, the court ruled that gun regulations must be "consistent with this nation's historical tradition of firearm regulation" to survive court challenges.

The Supreme Court said Friday the appeals court was wrongly looking for a "historical twin" to the regulation, rather than a "historical analogue."

Some courts, Roberts wrote, "have misunderstood the methodology of our recent Second Amendment cases."

"These precedents were not meant to suggest a law trapped in amber," Roberts wrote. "Holding otherwise would be as mistaken as applying the protections of the right only to muskets and sabers."

During the court’s discussion of Rahimi’s case in November, the question arose of what to do about a situation, such as domestic violence, in which there was essentially no law on the books when the Second Amendment was enacted. Much of the discussion focused on the idea that even if the framers didn't ban domestic abusers from owning guns, there was historical precedent for banning guns from people who were considered dangerous.

Thomas, in his dissent, accused the other justices of “mixing and matching historical laws.” He called that strategy a “regulatory blank check” to allow the government to disarm its citizens.

“That means the Government need only find a historical law with a comparable justification to validate modern disarmament regimes,” Thomas wrote. “As a result, historical laws fining certain behavior could justify completely disarming a person for the same behavior.”

'Hardly a model citizen'

While the appeals court had acknowledged Rahimi was "hardly a model citizen,” it ruled the law prohibiting him from owning a gun is an "outlier that our ancestors would never have accepted."

Underscoring the significance of the case, hundreds of gun safety and domestic violence prevention advocates had rallied outside the Supreme Court ahead of the November oral arguments, holding signs that read "Moms demand action" or "students demand action" on gun control.

Ashley Lantz, executive director of Brady PAC, said two-thirds of women killed by an intimate partner are killed with a gun.

“Thousands of women and other victims of domestic violence can breathe a sigh of relief today as the Court correctly ruled that their abusers cannot own firearms,” Lantz said in a statement Friday.

President Joe Biden said no one who has been abused should have to worry about their abuser getting a gun.

Attorney General Merrick Garland said the court maintained a "commonsense prohibition" consistent with the Second Amendment to protect victims of domestic violence from their abusers.

Supreme Court upholds law banning domestic abusers from owning guns (1)

Even Second Amendment rights groups acknowledged that Rahimi probably should not have access to guns. In 2019, Rahimipulled out a gun and fired at a passerbywho 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 Whataburger burger joint.

But those groups, including the National Rifle Association, argued 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.

“Zackey Rahimi is a dangerous individual already behind bars for real crimes – and that’s where he should be," said Erich Pratt, senior vice president for Gun Owners of America. "However, this ruling will disarm others who have never actually committed any domestic violence. So for those people to lose their enumerated rights, even for a temporary period of time, is a disgrace. If someone is dangerous, charge them with a real crime, convict them in a court of law, and get them out of society.”

But the student-led group March for Our Lives called Friday's decision the “bare minimum” and said it doesn’t make up for past decisions include the court's striking down last week a Trump-era federal ban on bump stocks, a device that lets a shooter fire a semi-automatic riflemore like a machine gun.

“Make no mistake: While the Supreme Court got it right today, it has already done far-reaching damage to settled constitutional jurisprudence via Bruen," said Makennan McBryde, Legal Associate at March For Our Lives, "and we remain concerned with its willingness to endanger lives to pursue a partisan agenda."

The court, in recent years, has tended to side with gun rights advocates, including in major decisions in2008,2010and the 2022 decision striking down New York’s gun licensing law.

The case is United States v. Rahimi.

Supreme Court upholds law banning domestic abusers from owning guns (2024)
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