Last week, the Supreme Court upheld a federal law that sought to ensure that anyone convicted of a crime of domestic violence assault — including a misdemeanor — would be barred from owning guns. The law was enacted in 1996 to close a loophole that allowed people convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence offenses to own guns. Two men from Maine were prosecuted under this law for possessing firearms after being convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors. They argued that the law should not apply to them, because their conduct was only “reckless,” not knowing or intentional. In a 6-2 decision, the Supreme Court rejected this claim, and found that a reckless domestic violence assault qualifies under the law. Importantly, this law does not apply to all types of assault, but only to clearly-defined domestic violence crimes that involve the use of physical force. It also applies to some types of domestic violence restraining orders.
This decision is important for many reasons. We know that at least 1/3 of all female homicide victims are killed by male intimate partners. We know that abused women are 5 times more likely to be killed by their abuser if he owns a firearm, and that domestic violence assaults involving a firearm are 12 times more likely to result in death than assaults involving bodily force or other types of weapons. We also know that many mass shootings are either directly related to or have roots in domestic violence or anger towards women. These statistics make it clear that we absolutely need to keep guns out of the hands of abusers.
However, this law does not prevent all convicted abusers from owning guns, and it is far from perfect. It not only requires a conviction, but the conviction must be for an assault specifically covered by the law — which means that it must include the use of physical force. It does not cover convictions for assaults on most dating partners or family members other than a spouse or child. It does not ban gun ownership for those convicted of stalking, and other crimes that do not involve the use of force. It does not mandate removal of guns that are already owned by the abuser. There is also the possibility that convictions or restraining orders won’t be entered into the right database, or that a background check will not reveal this information.
But this imperfect law is still an important way to prevent at least some abusers from owning guns — the same weapons that could very well be used to further harm their intimate partners, loved ones, or members of the general public. The decision of the Supreme Court in this case demonstrates a willingness to take the crime of domestic violence seriously — which is a key step in ultimately ending this type of violence in our society.
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