Supreme Court hears arguments in gun case over 1994 law protecting victims of domestic violence

By | November 7, 2023

Washington- The implications of last year’s landmark Supreme Court ruling on the Second Amendment were on display Tuesday as the justices weighed a high-stakes case that pits the right to bear arms against a federal law that seeks to protect victims of domestic violence by keeping weapons away. of their alleged attackers.

The arguments in the dispute were the first heard by the court since its conservative majority imposed a new test to assess whether a gun restriction complies with the Constitution, sparking confusion and frustration among federal judges across the country as they face new challenges to long-standing laws.

Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar, who represents the government before the Supreme Court, urged the justices to correct what she called a “profound misinterpretation” of their June 2022 ruling in the New York State Rifle and Pistol Association case vs. Bruen, which had a “destabilizing” effect. consequences” and led to the invalidation by lower courts of widely accepted gun restrictions, such as those disarming convicted felons.

“History and tradition confirm common sense,” she said in her closing speech. “Congress can disarm perpetrators of armed domestic violence.”

The discussions took place against the backdrop of the latest mass shooting to rock an American community, less than two weeks later, a gunman was killed. 18 people in Lewiston, Maine, again sparking calls for federal action to combat gun violence.

Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson referenced the Maine shooting, questioning how a state lawmaker from that state would approach possible legislative responses under the standard set by the high court in its June 2022 ruling in the case New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. Bruen.

United States v. Rahimi

The dispute before the justices, known as US v. Rahimi, concerns a law passed by Congress nearly 30 years ago that prohibits people subject to domestic violence restraining orders from possessing firearms. Zackey Rahimi, a Texas man, was the subject of such a restraining order granted to a former girlfriend in February 2020 when he threatened another woman with a gun and fired guns in public five times in December 2020 and January 2021.

Following the incidents and after police found two firearms at his home while executing a search warrant, Rahimi was charged with unlawful possession of a firearm while under arrest. of a domestic violence restraining order under the 1994 law. He pleaded guilty, but challenged the constitutionality of the nearly 30-year-old ban, arguing that it was unconstitutional under the Second Amendment .

The 5th U.S. Court of Appeals ultimately threw out Rahimi’s conviction and struck down the gun law under a new legal test for whether gun restrictions comply with the Constitution.

Under this test, stated by the Supreme Court In a historic decision taken almost 17 months ago, the government must propose laws analogous to the modern measure in question to show that it fits into the national history and tradition of regulating firearms.

The 5th Circuit said the analogs proposed by prosecutors during its landmark investigation “fell short” and concluded that the law “does not fall within the category of firearms regulations under the Second amendment”. The Justice Department appealed to the Supreme Court, which agreed at the end of June to review the 5th Circuit’s decision.

“The court didn’t really have a choice in taking this case,” said Nelson Lund, a law professor at George Mason University. “After the 5th Circuit declared the law unconstitutional, the solicitor general had to seek certification, and the court probably felt compelled to take up the case because a federal law had been declared unconstitutional.”

Lund said he expected there to be “considerable discussion about exactly what Bruen is asking the government to prove” during the arguments, a reference to the Supreme Court’s decision last year in the New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. Bruen.

During oral arguments Tuesday, Justice Elena Kagan acknowledged what she called “quite a bit of division and confusion” among lower courts over what is required under the test laid out in the Bruen decision, and invited the Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar to recommend guidance to the Supreme Court can explain how to apply its framework.

The Biden administration said in a deposit that history and tradition establish that the Second Amendment allows Congress to disarm people who are not “law-abiding and responsible citizens”, and cited laws dating back to the founding that disarmed people deemed dangerous. Prelogar, who represents the government before the Supreme Court, also warned that the presence of a gun significantly increases the risk that domestic violence will escalate into homicide.

“Guns and domestic violence are a deadly combination,” she said in her opening address to the justices, adding that the court recognized that “the only difference between a battered woman and a dead is the presence of a firearm”, a reference to a notice written by Justice Sonia Sotomayor for a unanimous court in 2014.

In its 2022 decision, the court “insisted that the nation’s history and tradition of gun regulation gives Congress and the states ample latitude to protect the public – including by disarming those who are not responsible, law-abiding citizens,” Prelogar argued, adding that the firearms law in question “clearly fits into this established tradition.”

Thanks to the law, the National Background Check System has prevented more than 77,000 gun purchases by people subject to domestic violence restraining orders since its inception in 1998, said Jennifer Becker of Battered Women’s Justice Project.

“It’s not about taking guns away from everyone,” Becker said. “It’s about temporarily taking guns away from people who have been deemed dangerous by a court.”

But Rahimi, represented by federal public defenders, said in a filing to the justices that there is nothing like federal law disarming people subject to domestic violence restraining orders in the historic tradition of country, meaning the measure is unconstitutional under the court’s framework.

“Although a ‘historical twin’ is not necessary, the government cannot designate a close relative, distant cousin, or anything with even a passing resemblance,” Rahimi’s lawyers wrote.

A conflict over gun rights

It is the first case involving gun rights that the justices will hear since their June 2022 ruling, and it offers the court its first opportunity to clarify how lower courts should apply the so-called gun test. history and tradition. Since the court’s 6-3 conservative majority issued its Second Amendment ruling, courts challenging widely accepted gun laws have issued conflicting rulings, and restrictions barring felons from keeping firearms and disarming people using illegal drugs were invalidated.

“Rahimi is not only important because of the law in question and the lives directly at risk if this law does not survive, but also because the court has the opportunity to correct the course,” said Esther Sanchez-Gomez, director of litigation at Giffords Law. Center. “He should use this case to provide additional guidance on what this new history test requires, how courts should apply it, and to clarify the assurance and caveats offered by the justices (in previous Second Amendment cases), holding that a variety of gun laws are constitutional.

Shira Feldman, director of constitutional litigation at Brady, a gun control advocacy organization, said she is looking to the Supreme Court to provide guidance on the historical inquiries the courts must now conduct and the analogs sufficient for modern regulation, including how many such laws are necessary for the government to meet its burden, where they should come from, and whether they should cover a certain number of people or geographic areas.

“These are questions that Bruen does not answer and that many courts struggle with,” she said.

The dispute drew input from a host of pro-Second Amendment and gun control groups, Democratic lawmakers, prosecutors and public defenders, who submitted friend-of-the-court briefs to the justices .

Among the parties weighing in, many of their positions fall along familiar lines, with pro-Second Amendment groups favoring broader gun rights, and Democrats and gun control organizations urging the court to allow certain gun restrictions.

But Rahimi’s case also gave rise to surprising alliances: National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers And National Association of Federal Defenders support Rahimi in this case, putting them on the same side as gun rights groups like the National Rifle Association and Gun Owners of America.

The National Association of Federal Defenders argued that the Second Amendment right to bear arms is not limited to only “law-abiding and responsible” citizens, while the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers told the court that protection orders are not limited only to people who are not “law-abiding”, but they would nonetheless be subject to prosecution under the Disarmament Act. The two groups, which represent federal public and community defenders and criminal defense attorneys, have expressed concerns that limiting the Second Amendment right to only those considered “law-abiding” and “responsible” is unclear and could be too broad in scope.

Meanwhile, Tarrant County Criminal District Attorney Phil Sorrells, a self-described conservative Republican with mentions former President Donald Trump and former Texas Governor Rick Perry, as well as other Texas prosecutors are support the Biden administration and argue that the Second Amendment does not protect defendants like Rahimi.

“For those subject to a protection order, overwhelming evidence establishes that their firearms are not intended for self-defense. They are not kept for a lawful purpose. They are weapons of intimidation , fear and control,” Sorrells and his other Texas prosecutors told the court.

A decision is expected by the end of June.

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