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US Supreme Court upholds federal domestic-violence gun ban

By Thomson Reuters Jun 21, 2024 | 9:29 AM

By Andrew Chung

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday upheld a federal law that makes it a crime for people under domestic violence restraining orders to have guns, handing a victory to President Joe Biden’s administration as the justices opted not to further widen firearms rights after a major expansion in 2022.

The 8-1 ruling, authored by conservative Chief Justice John Roberts, overturned a lower court’s decision striking down the 1994 law as a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment right to “keep and bear arms.”

The New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had concluded that the measure failed the Supreme Court’s stringent test set in 2022 that required gun laws to be “consistent with the nation’s historical tradition of firearm regulation” to comply with the Second Amendment.

Biden’s administration defended the law as critical to protect public safety and abuse victims, who often are women. It argued that the ban should survive because of the long tradition in the United States of taking guns from people deemed dangerous. It emphasized that guns pose a particularly serious threat in domestic violence situations and also are extremely dangerous to police officers called to respond.

Roberts wrote in the ruling that since the nation’s founding, firearm laws have targeted people who threaten physical harm to others.

“When a restraining order contains a finding that an individual poses a credible threat to the physical safety of an intimate partner, that individual may – consistent with the Second Amendment – be banned from possessing firearms while the order is in effect,” Roberts wrote.

Conservative Justice Clarence Thomas was the line dissenter.

The case involved Zackey Rahimi, a Texas man who pleaded guilty in 2021 to illegally possessing guns in violation of this law while subject to a restraining order for assaulting his girlfriend in a parking lot and later threatening to shoot her.

Police found a pistol and rifle while searching his residence in connection with at least five shootings, including using an assault-type rifle to fire at the home of a man to whom he had sold drugs.

A federal judge rejected Rahimi’s Second Amendment challenge and sentenced him to more than six years in prison. Violating the domestic violence gun law initially was punishable by up to 10 years in prison but has since been raised to 15 years.

AMERICAN GUN VIOLENCE

In a May Reuters/Ipsos poll, 75% of registered voters, including 84% of Democrats and 70% of Republicans, said that a person subject to a domestic violence restraining order should not be allowed to possess firearms.

In a nation bitterly divided over how to address firearms violence including frequent mass shootings, the Supreme Court often has taken an expansive view of the Second Amendment, broadening gun rights in landmark rulings in 2008, 2010 and 2022. The 2022 ruling, called New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. Bruen, recognized a constitutional right to carry a handgun in public for self defense, striking down a New York state’s limits on carrying concealed handguns outside the home.

In another firearms case, the Supreme Court on June 14 in a 6-3 ruling powered by its conservative majority declared unlawful a federal ban on “bump stock” devices that enable semiautomatic weapons to fire rapidly like machine guns.

The 5th Circuit in February 2023 set aside Rahimi’s conviction, concluding that although he was “hardly a model citizen,” the 1994 law was an “outlier” that could not stand under the “historical tradition” standard the justices announced in Bruen.

Supporters of Rahimi have argued that judges too easily issue restraining orders in an unfair process that results in the deprivation of the constitutional gun rights of accused abusers.

The Supreme Court heard arguments in the case in November.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)