Domestic Abusers Take Their Fight To Own Guns To The Supreme Court

Anti-gun violence groups warn the case could put women's lives at stake.

02/26/2016 10:20 am ET | Updated Feb 27, 2016
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Should convicted domestic abusers be allowed to own guns if their acts of violence were committed "recklessly"?

In 2009, an anonymous tipster contacted authorities with a hunch: A bald eagle had been shot and killed, and they knew who did it. 

A Maine man, Stephen Voisine, was arrested for the crime. He turned over his rifle to police. As it turned out, he was not legally allowed to own guns. Six years earlier, he’d been convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor against his girlfriend after she called police and said he’d slapped her -- and not for the first time. Two years later, he was convicted of assaulting her again.

Under a federal law called the Lautenberg Amendment, if you’ve been convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor, you can’t own or buy a gun. If you’re caught with one, as Voisine was, you can face up to 10 years behind bars. In 2011, Voisine was charged with unlawful possession of a firearm by a prohibited person.

On Monday, he and another Maine man with a similar story are taking their case to the Supreme Court. Lawyers for the two men are arguing that their convictions for violating the amendment should be reversed -- because they never should have lost their gun rights to begin with.

Both men were convicted of domestic violence under Maine statutes that include "reckless" conduct. Their lawyers argue that the men acted in the heat of the moment and their impulsive, reckless acts of domestic violence are not serious enough to qualify under the federal gun ban.

In essence, as The Trace explains, they're arguing for a hierarchy of domestic violence offenses. In their estimation, not all domestic violence convictions should result in a gun ban. Instead, they say, only intentional, purposeful acts of violence should trigger the loss of gun rights under federal law. 

The question put to the court boils down to this: Does it matter what mental state you are in when you commit domestic violence? Under the law, if you commit such a crime recklessly, as opposed to knowingly or intentionally, should you still forfeit your right to buy or possess guns?

Why should I care about this case?

If the court sides with the two men, it's possible that only some types of domestic violence convictions would result in abusers losing their gun rights. 

That would be a dangerous scenario, according to the many anti-violence organizations that filed friend-of-the-court briefs. Research shows that if an abuser has access to a gun, victims are five times more likely to be killed. A recent Associated Press analysis found that an average of 760 Americans were killed with guns annually by intimate partners, though that is likely an undercount. More than 80 percent of the victims were women.

It also appears to go against the spirit of the Lautenberg Amendment, which was enacted to make sure that all domestic abusers -- whether convicted of felonies or misdemeanors -- can't own guns.

Oh, right, the Lautenberg Amendment. Why is it important again?

In 1996, Congress passed the amendment to the Gun Control Act, which barred individuals convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors from owning or buying guns. 

At the time, people who were convicted of felonies were already banned from owning guns. But Congress noticed that domestic abusers were falling through the cracks. Even if they were alleged to have committed serious, violent crimes against their partners, the offenses were frequently charged as or pleaded down to misdemeanors.

“The fact is, that in many places today, domestic violence is not taken as seriously as other forms of criminal behavior,” then-Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) argued on the Senate floor.

In the past few years, there’s been state-level drive to strengthen laws keeping guns away from domestic abusers and ensuring that those who are barred from owning weapons are actually required to hand them in.

So why do the petitioners believe their convictions don’t count under the federal gun ban?

Lawyers for the men are arguing that the gun ban should only apply to people who intend to hurt their partners, not those who merely act recklessly or impulsively.

But as the government lawyers point out, most states' simple assault and battery laws --- which are typically used to address domestic violence -- lump crimes committed recklessly or intentionally together.

The stakes of this decision will be measured in lives. Everytown for Gun Safety

For example, under Maine law, a person is guilty of assault if he or she "intentionally, knowingly or recklessly cause bodily injury or offensive physical contact to another person." Many states use similar language. 

It’s important to note that reckless acts don’t mean accidental. Under Maine law, a person acts recklessly when he or she "consciously disregards a risk that the person’s conduct will cause such a result."

What does the government think?

The government’s position is that the federal gun ban on domestic abusers was clearly intended to include reckless acts of violence. Excluding those acts from the Lautenberg Amendment would "frustrate (if not destroy) Congress’s manifest purpose" to keep firearms from convicted domestic abusers, according to government lawyers.

Many types of violence that are common in abusive relationships, such as pushing, slapping, hitting and restraining a person, could be considered reckless, they argue. "[T]o exclude reckless conduct would be to exclude exactly those familiar forms of domestic abuse from [the Lautenberg Amendment]. Congress could not have intended that result."

However, the Supreme Court may think the language in the Lautenberg Amendment is constitutionally vague, in which case it may agree that the federal charges against the two men should be dropped. This is because criminal law requires statutes to be written very specifically and any provision that sweeps too broadly is in danger of being restricted.

If the court goes that route, it's likely to simply decide that the "reckless" use of physical force, without more specificity at the state level, means someone can't be federally prosecuted under the anti-gun law.

Why does it matter if domestic abusers have access to guns? 

More women in this country die at the hands of their intimate partners -- their boyfriends, husbands and exes -- than any other type of perpetrator. Most of those homicides are committed with guns. 

In a recent project, The Huffington Post tracked all the people killed in suspected intimate partner homicides over the month of January. We found that 112 people were killed, including children and bystanders. Firearms were responsible for 57 percent of those deaths. 

In addition, most U.S. mass shootings are related to domestic violence. 

Laws that make it harder for domestic abusers to get guns are shown to save lives. One study, for example, found that state laws restricting firearm access for people subject to protective orders were associated with a 25 percent lower rate of gun-related intimate partner homicides

As Everytown for Gun Safety summed up in a friend-of-the-court brief for the case, "the stakes of this decision will be measured in lives."

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Melissa Jeltsen covers domestic violence and other issues related to women's health, safety and security. Tips? Feedback? Send an email or follow her on Twitter.

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