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Supreme Court upholds federal ban on guns for domestic abusers

The U.S. Supreme Court handed down a decision in a major gun-rights case.
Al Drago
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The U.S. Supreme Court handed down a decision in a major gun-rights case.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday upheld a federal ban on gun possession for anyone covered by a domestic violence court order. The vote was 8-to-1.

The decision was the first major gun ruling since 2022 when the high court broke sharply with the way gun laws had previously been handled by the courts; the decision declared for the first time that in order for a gun law to be constitutional, it has to be analogous to a law that existed at the nation's founding in the late 1700's.

But on Friday, the court majority seemed to draw that line more flexibly.

Writing for the court majority, Chief Justice John Roberts said that when an individual has been found to pose a credible threat to the physical safety of another person, the Second Amendment allows that person to be temporarily disarmed .

Dissenting was Justices Clarence Thomas, who wrote the decision two years ago dramatically expanding the Second Amendment right to bear arms as including a right to possess and carry guns in public. The constitutional right to bear arms, he wrote at the time, is not a second-class right subject to an entirely different body of rules than the other guarantees in the Bill of Rights.

Since then, Second Amendment advocates have brought all manner of challenge to state and federal gun laws across the country, plunging the lower courts into conflicting conclusions about how precise the analog has to be. Friday's ruling was the first test of how far the conservative court wants to go, and how precise the analog has to be to laws at the founding. At issue was the federal law that makes it a crime for anyone subject to a domestic violence court order to possess a gun.

The defendant in the case, Zackey Rahimi, is something of a poster child for why Congress passed the law in 1994. He assaulted his girlfriend in a parking lot, threatened to shoot her if she told anyone, and after he realized that a bystander saw the assault, he fired a gun at the witness. Two months later, a Texas court granted her a protective order, suspended Rahimi's gun license, and warned him that possession of a gun while the order remained in effect is a federal felony.

Rahimi repeatedly violated the court order, threatened another woman with a gun and fired a gun in five different locations in a period of one month—incidents that ranged from shooting a gun repeatedly at another driver after a collision, to firing multiple shots in the air after a fast-food restaurant declined a friend's credit card. When police searched his residence, they found a pistol, a rifle, magazines, ammunition, and a copy of the protective order.

He pleaded guilty to charges of violating the federal gun law and was sentenced to six years in prison. But he continued to press his constitutional challenge, and ultimately the ultra-conservative Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the law is unconstitutional because there was nothing like it in the 1790s. The federal government appealed, contending that there is a long historical tradition in this country of disarming people who are dangerous.

Victims of domestic violence weighed in too, noting that at the founding women had few legal rights, and were largely considered the property of their husbands. And they pointed to modern-day statistics showing that in 2019, at the time Rahimi's case began, more than 70 women were shot and killed every month by a domestic partner, and that domestic assaults that involve guns are 11 times more likely to cause death than assaults without guns.

Supporters of the domestic violence gun ban noted as well that women aren't the only victims in these cases. Domestic violence with a gun is a leading cause of death for children. More than half of all mass shootings are perpetrated by people with a record of domestic violence. And finally, that domestic violence calls result in the highest number of police fatalities, almost all of them involving guns.

Friday's court decision was a victory for so-called "sensible gun regulations," and it will have some ripple effects; it may make lower courts more hesitant to strike down laws aimed at preventing dangerous people from having guns.

But as several justices observed during the oral arguments in November, the Rahimi case was "the easy case," while other, harder cases lies ahead. Among them are challenges to federal and state laws that bar convicted felons--including those convicted of nonviolent crimes--from having guns, and state "red flag laws" that allow family members and police to petition a judge for an emergency order to temporarily remove firearms from people who may harm themselves or others.
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United States & World Morning Edition
Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.