Supreme Court rejects gun rights for people accused of domestic violence

David G. Savage, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Political News

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Friday put new limits on the 2nd Amendment, ruling that dangerous people who have threatened a domestic partner may be denied their right to have guns.

The 8-1 decision upholds federal and state laws that take away guns from persons who are subject to domestic violence restraining orders.

"Since the founding, our nation's firearm laws have included provisions preventing individuals who threaten physical harm to others from misusing firearms," said Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., writing for the court.

The outcome shows that the conservative justices are willing to restrict the 2nd Amendment. The court reversed a ruling by the conservative 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, which had struck down part of the Violence Against Women Act. The law authorizes judges to remove guns from persons who pose a "credible threat" to a domestic partner or a child.

In the past, gun rights advocates had argued that a responsible and law-abiding person has a right to have a gun for self-defense, and the Supreme Court had agreed. Two years ago, the justices ruled in favor of gun owners in New York and said they had a right to seek a permit to carry a concealed gun with them when leaving home.

But the justices were not willing to rule that the 2nd Amendment protects the rights of dangerous people who have threatened others.

"An individual found by a court to pose a credible threat to the physical safety of another may be temporarily disarmed consistent with the 2nd Amendment," the chief justice said. Equally important, seven other justices were willing to sign on to his opinion.

"Despite its unqualified text, the 2nd Amendment is not absolute," Justice Amy Coney Barrett wrote in one of five concurring opinions. "History is consistent with common sense: it demonstrates that legislatures have the power to prohibit dangerous people from possessing guns," she said, quoting one of her earlier opinions.

Justice Clarence Thomas, the author of the New York opinion two years ago, dissented alone on Friday.

"This is a major win for gun safety advocates," said UCLA law professor Adam Winkler. "This decision will make it much easier for gun laws to survive legal challenge. Broadly it sends a signal that the court's majority is not completely hostile to gun laws."

California Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta called the ruling "an important victory for public safety and for survivors of domestic violence nationwide. Disarming violent and dangerous individuals is a cornerstone of public safety."

Despite Friday's ruling, however, the justices may soon consider 2nd Amendment challenges to laws in California and other blue states that prohibit rapid-fire assault weapons. The court is considering several appeals involving a newly adopted Illinois ban on assault weapons.

In dissent Friday, Thomas said Zackey Rahimi, the defendant, had been accused of threatening his ex-girlfriend but he had not been convicted of a crime such as assaulting her.


"The question is whether the government can strip the 2nd Amendment right of anyone subject to a protective order — even if he has never been accused or convicted of a crime. It cannot," he wrote. "The court and government do not point to a single historical law revoking a citizen's 2nd Amendment right based on possible interpersonal violence."

In the past, most of the 2nd Amendment cases to come before the Supreme Court have featured gun owners who were described as law-abiding and responsible. That description did not easily fit Rahimi.

Texas police said he was a drug dealer who had shot at people and cars five times within a month in December 2020.

They said he had fired into the house of a man who he said had been "talking trash" about him on social media. He also shot at a driver after getting into an auto accident, and fired wildly into the air "after a friend's credit card was declined at a fast-food restaurant," prosecutors said.

A year before the five shooting incidents, Rahimi had been brought before a judge in Arlington, Texas, because he had beaten and threatened a girlfriend who had a child with him. He grabbed her in a parking lot, forced her into his car and shot at a bystander who saw what happened. He later threatened to kill the woman if she reported the assault.

The federal Violence Against Women Act of 1994 said judges may enforce restraining orders that take away firearms from someone who has harassed or threatened an "intimate partner" or a child, and who poses a "credible threat."

The judge issued a restraining order for two years that denied Rahimi the right to have firearms and warned him he would be guilty of a federal crime if he defied the order. Rahimi agreed, but then defied the order, including by threatening the woman again.

When police went to arrest Rahimi for the shooting incidents, they found a .45-caliber pistol, a .308-caliber rifle, magazines for both pistols and rifles, ammunition, approximately $20,000 in cash, and a signed copy of a court restraining order that prohibited him from having firearms.

He was indicted by a federal grand jury, pleaded guilty to violating the restraining order and was sentenced to six years in prison.

But last year, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled for Rahimi, overturning his conviction and declaring unconstitutional the part of the federal law that denied guns to those accused of domestic violence.

The three-judge panel agreed it was laudable to "protect vulnerable people in our society," but said the "the 2nd Amendment right is exercised individually and belongs to all Americans .... Rahimi, while hardly a model citizen, is nonetheless among the people entitled to the 2nd Amendment's guarantees."

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