SCOTUS: Domestic Abusers Can't Have Guns

By Ryan Hammill 6-27-2016
J Main / Shutterstock
Photo via J Main / Shutterstock

The Supreme Court ruled June 27 that the federal government can ban abusers from possessing guns.

The 6-2 ruling in Voisine v. U.S. upholds a federal law that prohibits any person convicted of a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” from owning a firearm.

The case was brought by two men convicted of misdemeanor assault under state law and later charged with federal crimes for possessing firearms. The plaintiffs, Stephen Voisine and William Armstrong, argued that their crimes did not count under federal statute because their crimes were reckless, not intentional or knowing.

The Court’s ruling that a reckless domestic assault counts as a domestic violence misdemeanor means that the federal law remains in place.

“The Supreme Court today affirmed what we know — domestic violence escalates and is often deadly,” said Kim Gandy, President and CEO of the National Network to End Domestic Violence. “Ensuring that convicted abusers do not have access to firearms will save lives.”

The only two dissenters make an unexpected pair. Justice Clarence Thomas, arguably the most conservative justice on the bench, found himself in the minority alongside Justice Sonia Sotomayor, a reliably liberal justice.

Justice Sotomayor joined Justice Thomas’ dissent, but only in parts one and two, which are concerned with the definition of the phrase “use of physical force.” Justice Thomas spoke for himself in part three of the dissent, in which he raised concerns about the Second Amendment.

The Voisine v. U.S. case is also notable because it was in this case that Justice Thomas broke his 10-year silence during oral arguments. His question concerned whether “recklessness” is enough to merit a lifetime ban on owning a gun.

The Court said that it did.

“The federal ban on firearms possession applies to any person with a prior misdemeanor conviction for the ‘use . . . of physical force’ against a domestic relation,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote in conclusion of the opinion“That language, naturally read, encompasses acts of force undertaken recklessly—i.e., with conscious disregard of a substantial risk of harm.”

The ruling comes just as the House and the Senate have witnessed showdowns on gun violence legislation.

In the Senate, Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) led a 15-hour filibuster calling for better legislation in the wake of the Orlando massacre, an effort that generated significant media attention but resulted in four failed votes. But a compromise bill survived a test vote last week, and Republicans look increasingly likely to defy the National Rifle Association on at least narrow measures.

Shortly after the Senate filibuster, House Democrats held a sit-in on the floor of the House, after which civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) vowed "we're not giving up the fight."

Ryan Hammill is a former Online Assistant for Sojourners. Follow him @ryanahammill.

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