Supreme Court seems likely to preserve gun law that protects domestic violence victims

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The U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. (IL file photo)

The U.S. Supreme Court seemed likely Tuesday to preserve a federal law that prohibits people under domestic violence restraining orders from having guns.

In their first guns case since last year’s expansion of gun rights, the justices suggested that they will reverse a ruling from an appeals court in New Orleans that struck down the 1994 ban on firearms for people under court order to stay away from their spouses or partners.

The court’s decision could affect other cases in which other gun laws have been called into question, including in the high-profile prosecution of Hunter Biden. President Joe Biden’s son has been charged with buying a firearm while he was addicted to drugs, but his lawyers have indicated they will challenge the indictment.

Liberal and conservative justices sounded persuaded by arguments from the Biden administration’s top Supreme Court lawyer that the prohibition is in line with the longstanding practice of disarming dangerous people.

The case before the court involves a Texas man, Zackey Rahimi, who was accused of hitting his girlfriend during an argument in a parking lot and later threatening to shoot her.

The justices peppered Rahimi’s lawyer, J. Matthew Wright, with skeptical questions that seemed to foretell the outcome.

“You don’t have any doubt that your client is a dangerous person, do you?” Chief Justice John Roberts asked Wright. When Wright said it depends on what Roberts meant by dangerous, the chief justice shot back, “Well, it means someone who’s shooting, you know, at people. That’s a good start.”

Justice Brett Kavanaugh voiced concern that a ruling for Rahimi could also jeopardize the background check system that the Democratic administration said has stopped more than 75,000 gun sales in the past 25 years based on domestic violence protective orders.

The federal appeals court in New Orleans struck down the domestic violence law, following the Supreme Court’s Bruen decision in June 2022. That high court ruling not only expanded Americans’ gun rights under the Constitution but also changed the way courts are supposed to evaluate restrictions on firearms.

Justice Clarence Thomas’ opinion for the court tossed out the balancing test judges had long used to decide whether gun laws were constitutional. Rather than consider whether a law enhances public safety, judges should only weigh whether it fits into the nation’s history of gun regulation, Thomas wrote for the six conservative justices on the nine-member court.

The Bruen decision has resulted in lower court rulings striking down more than a dozen laws. Those include age restrictions; bans on homemade ghost guns, which don’t have serial numbers; and prohibitions on gun ownership for people convicted of nonviolent felonies or using illegal drugs.

Justice Elena Kagan noted that “there seems to be a fair bit of division and a fair bit of confusion about what Bruen means and what Bruen requires in the lower courts.”

Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar, defending the domestic violence law, urged the justices to use this case to correct lower courts’ “profound misreading” of the decision.

It was unclear how far the high court would go in this case, and some of the justices sounded interested in a limited ruling that might leave open other challenges to the same law. “Do we need to get into any of that?” Justice Neil Gorsuch asked Prelogar.

Rahimi, who lived near Fort Worth, Texas, hit his girlfriend during an argument in a parking lot and then fired a gun at a witness in December 2019, according to court papers. Later, Rahimi called the girlfriend and threatened to shoot her if she told anyone about the assault, the Justice Department wrote in its Supreme Court brief.

The girlfriend obtained a protective order against him in Tarrant County in February 2020.

Eleven months later, Rahimi was a suspect in shootings when police searched his apartment and found guns. He eventually pleaded guilty to violating federal law. The appeals court overturned that conviction when it struck down the law. The Supreme Court agreed to hear the Biden administration’s appeal.

Rahimi remains jailed in Texas, where he faces other criminal charges. In a letter he wrote from jail last summer, after the Supreme Court agreed to hear his case, Rahimi said he would “stay away from all firearms and weapons” once he’s released. The New York Times first reported the existence of the letter.

Guns were used in 57% of killings of spouses, intimate partners, children or relatives in 2020, according to data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. An average of 70 women a month are shot and killed by intimate partners, according to the gun control group Everytown for Gun Safety.

“Guns and domestic are a deadly combination,” Prelogar said in court Tuesday.

A decision in U.S. v. Rahimi, 22-915, is expected by early summer.

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