Supreme Court Upholds US Gun Ban in Domestic Violence Cases

(Bloomberg) -- The US Supreme Court upheld a federal law that bars firearm possession by people under domestic-violence restraining orders in a ruling that tempers the court’s expansion of constitutional gun rights.

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Voting 8-1, the justices said the Constitution’s Second Amendment isn’t so broad that it protects the gun rights of those found to be dangerous. Justice Clarence Thomas was the lone dissenter.

“Our tradition of firearm regulation allows the government to disarm individuals who present a credible threat to the physical safety of others,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the court.

The case was the court’s first application of its 2022 ruling in New York State Rifle & Pistol v. Bruen, which established a constitutional right to carry a handgun in public and said weapons laws can survive only if the government can show a history of analogous restrictions.

Though the ruling is a victory for the Biden administration, the court didn’t go as far as the Justice Department sought in outlining a sphere of permissible gun regulations. The administration had asked the court to say that only “law-abiding responsible citizens” enjoy full Second Amendment protections.

The ruling leaves open questions about gun bans imposed on drug users and on people convicted of nonviolent felonies. The court is likely to say in the coming days whether it will hear pending Biden administration appeals on those issues.

One of the cases involves the same provision used to convict Hunter Biden, the president’s son, for possessing a gun while addicted to a controlled substance.

The ruling follows the court’s June 14 decision throwing out the federal ban on bump stocks, the rapid-fire devices used in the 2017 Las Vegas concert massacre. That case involved the reach of the federal law banning machine guns, rather than the Second Amendment.

Historical Test

The domestic-violence case concerned a 1994 law that has been used to block more than 77,000 gun sales in the past 25 years. Supporters of the law included Everytown for Gun Safety, which is backed by Michael Bloomberg, founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP.

The 5th US Circuit Court of Appeals had struck down the law, saying the government hadn’t shown the type of historical analogue required under the Bruen ruling. The panel of three Republican-appointed judges said the law was “an outlier that our ancestors never would have accepted.”

Roberts said the 5th Circuit incorrectly “read Bruen to require a ‘historical twin’ rather than a ‘historical analogue.’” He said the Second Amendment “permits more than just those regulations identical to ones that could be found in 1791.”

Although eight justices joined Roberts’ opinion, six members of the majority wrote or joined separate opinions to put their own gloss on the court’s Second Amendment jurisprudence. Justice Neil Gorsuch said the ruling “reinforces the focus on text, history and tradition, following exactly the path we described in Bruen.”

Two of the court’s liberals, Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, reiterated their view that Bruen was wrongly decided. But in an opinion for the two, Sotomayor said “this is an easy case” even under the Bruen test.

A third liberal, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, said that lower courts are “struggling” to apply the Bruen ruling. Jackson wasn’t on the court when the court decided the earlier case.

Violent Behavior

In dissent, Thomas criticized the law for stripping away gun rights even if a person hasn’t been convicted of domestic violence or any other crime.

“The presumption against restrictions on keeping and bearing firearms is a central feature of the Second Amendment,” Thomas wrote. “That amendment does not merely narrow the government’s regulatory power. It is a barrier, placing the right to keep and bear arms off limits to the government.”

The case centered on Zackey Rahimi, who prosecutors say participated in five shootings and threatened another woman with a gun – all after a judge had imposed a restraining order to protect a former girlfriend the Texas man was accused of attacking and threatening to shoot.

The restraining order, to which Rahimi consented, said that he had “committed family violence” and that similar conduct was “likely to occur again in the future.”

Police later found a pistol and a rifle in his room while investigating one of the shootings. That led to his indictment for violating the 1994 federal law at the center of the case.

Biden Reacts

Government statistics show that an average of three women are killed every day by a current or former partner, according to a brief filed in the case by domestic violence groups. More than half are killed by guns, the groups said.

“As a result of today’s ruling, survivors of domestic violence and their families will still be able to count on critical protections, just as they have for the past three decades,” President Joe Biden said in a statement.

Attorney General Merrick Garland called the law a “commonsense prohibition” that is “entirely consistent with the court’s precedent and the text and history of the Second Amendment.”

Gun-rights advocates had mixed reactions. Erich Pratt, senior vice president of Gun Owners of America, said that while Rahimi is “a dangerous individual,” the ruling “will disarm others who have never actually committed any domestic violence.”

The National Rifle Association characterized the decision as a narrow one that doesn’t provide legal support for dozens of other laws the group is challenging. “This decision holds only that an individual who poses a clear threat of violence may be temporarily disarmed after a judicial finding of dangerousness,” said Randy Kozuch, executive director of the group’s lobbying arm, in a post on X.

The case is United States v. Rahimi, 22-915.

--With assistance from Erik Larson.

(Updates with reaction starting in 21st paragraph.)

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