U.S. Supreme Court upholds ban on gun possession for Domestic Violence offenders

 

David G. Savage – L.A. Tribune Washington Bureau -  February 24, 2009

 

The Supreme Court today upheld a broad federal gun control law which strips gun rights from the many thousands of people who have been convicted of any domestic-violence crime.

In a 7-2 decision, the justices said the federal ban on gun possession was intended to keep “firearms out of the hands of domestic abusers,” said Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

The law covers not only those who have felony convictions, she said, but also misdemeanors involving an assault or beating against a former or current spouse or a live-in partner, as well as a child, a parent or others who live together in the home.

“Firearms and domestic strife are a potentially deadly combination nationwide,” Ginsburg wrote.

 

She cited a report from the National Institute of Justice which found that about 1.3 million women and 835,000 men are physically assaulted by a spouse or partner each year. Many more such offenses are never reported, the report found.

In today’s decision, the court settled a linguistic dispute over how to read the law. Since 1968, federal law has prohibited felons from having a firearm. That ban was extended in 1996 to cover a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence.”

Some judges read this narrowly to mean the law did not apply to those who were charged with assaulting or physically threatening someone with whom they had once lived. These judges said the law applied only to those who were convicted or who plead guilty to a “domestic violence” crime.

Some states have laws against “domestic violence” and charge offenders under it. Other states and prosecutors routinely charge offenders with assault or battery.

In an earlier ruling, United States vs. Hayes, the court said the gun ban applies to all such offenses, so long as it can be shown there was a domestic relationship between the offender and victim.

The ruling reinstates an illegal gun possession charge against Randy Hayes, a West Virginia man who was found to have three guns in 2004. He also had on his record a 1994 misdemeanor for battery against a woman who “was cohabiting with him.”

Hayes had argued that the federal gun-control law did not apply because he had been convicted of “generic battery,” not a “domestic violence” law. The U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., agreed, limiting the reach of the law.

Bush administration lawyers appealed to the Supreme Court, which reinstated the broad view of the federal law today.

The case did not involve the Second Amendment and the constitutional right to “keep and bear arms.” Last year, the court in a 5-4 decision said Americans have a right to have a gun for self-defense, but its opinion reaffirmed the validity of laws that keep guns out of the hands of criminals.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts and Justice Antonin Scalia dissented in the West Virginia case, but they focused tightly on the words of the law to conclude it was limited to “domestic violence” crimes only.

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