US supreme court toughens gun ban for domestic violence

Reckless as well as intentional assaults can bring loss of gun ownership rights after ruling

A woman holds a sign advocating for gun control while marching with the Moms Demand Action against gun violence contingent at the San Francisco LGBT Pride parade in San Francisco, California, on Sunday. Photograph: Elijah Nouvelage/Reuters

A woman holds a sign advocating for gun control while marching with the Moms Demand Action against gun violence contingent at the San Francisco LGBT Pride parade in San Francisco, California, on Sunday. Photograph: Elijah Nouvelage/Reuters

 

The US supreme court on Monday expanded the types of domestic violence convictions that can trigger the loss of gun ownership rights in a ruling issued amid fierce debate about reducing firearms violence in America.

The justices, in a 6-2 ruling, rejected arguments that a gun-ownership prohibition should apply only to knowing or intentional, rather than reckless, conduct.

In dispute was a law passed two decades ago preventing people convicted of a “misdemeanour crime of domestic violence” from owning a firearm. Writing for the court, liberal Justice Elena Kagan said the law was enacted “to close a dangerous loophole” because many perpetrators of domestic violence were charged with misdemeanours rather than felonies.

Justice Kagan said the US Congress was targeting domestic abusers convicted under run-of-the-mill misdemeanour assault and battery laws, and that “reckless assaults” would be covered.

The issues of gun rights and gun control have been high in the national debate since 49 people were killed by a gunman on June 12th at an Orlando gay nightclub in the deadliest mass shooting in modern US history.

Following the incident, gun control legislation was voted upon and defeated in the US Senate, while House of Representatives Democrats staged a sit-in demanding action on gun control.

The latest gun case was brought to the supreme court from Maine by two men who, separately, pleaded guilty to domestic assault and then years later were charged with illegally possessing firearms. Both men had argued that they should not be subject to the gun prohibition because their prior convictions were based on reckless, rather than knowing or intentional, conduct.

Dissenting view

Clarence Thomas

“This decision leaves the right to keep and bear arms up to the discretion of federal, state and local prosecutors,” Justice Thomas wrote. “We treat no other constitutional right so cavalierly.”

Justice Thomas wrote that during oral arguments in the case, “the government could not identify any other fundamental constitutional right that a person could lose forever by a single conviction for an infraction punishable only by a fine”.

It was in this case that Justice Thomas ended his self-imposed decade of silence from the bench on February 29th, asking a question during an oral argument for the first time since February 22, 2006.

At that time, he pressed an Obama administration lawyer with the question, “Can you give me another area where a misdemeanour violation suspends a constitutional right?”

Reuters