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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Supreme Court upholds law disarming domestic abusers

Outside the Supreme Court in Washington, on Thursday, April 25, 2024. The Supreme Court ruled on June 21, 2024 that the government may disarm a Texas man subject to a domestic violence order, limiting the sweep of its earlier blockbuster decision that vastly expanded gun rights. (Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times)

By Adam Liptak

The Supreme Court ruled late last week that the government can take guns away from people subject to restraining orders for domestic violence, limiting the sweep of a blockbuster decision in 2022 that had vastly expanded Second Amendment rights.

Indeed, Friday’s decision amounted to a retreat from what had been an unbroken series of major rulings favoring gun rights that started in 2008, when the court first recognized an individual constitutional right to keep firearms in the home for self-defense.

In the 2022 decision, the court established a right to carry guns outside the home and announced a new test to assess all sorts of gun control laws, one that looked to historical practices to judge their constitutionality. That new test has sown confusion in the lower courts, with some judges striking down laws that had been on the books for decades.

The case decided Friday, United States v. Rahimi, asked whether a Texas man could be prosecuted under federal law making it a crime for people subject to domestic violence restraining orders to possess guns. Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority in the 8-1 decision, said the answer was yes and that Second Amendment rights have limits.

“When a restraining order contains a finding that an individual poses a credible threat to the physical safety of an intimate partner, that individual may — consistent with the Second Amendment — be banned from possessing firearms while the order is in effect,” Roberts wrote. “Since the founding, our nation’s firearm laws have included provisions preventing individuals who threaten physical harm to others from misusing firearms.”

Justice Clarence Thomas, author of the majority opinion in the 2022 decision, New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen, was the only dissenter.

Legal experts said Friday’s ruling was a victory for supporters of gun regulations.

“This decision will make it much easier for gun laws to survive legal challenge,” said Adam Winkler, a law professor at UCLA. “Broadly, it sends a signal that the court’s majority is not completely hostile to gun laws. Lower courts may feel they have more leeway to uphold gun laws in the future.”

The Bruen decision said gun laws are constitutional only if courts can find a historical analogue.

But that inquiry, Roberts wrote Friday, does not require locating an exact match and can instead focus on broad principles. “The appropriate analysis involves considering whether the challenged regulation is consistent with the principles that underpin our regulatory tradition,” he wrote.

In dissent, Thomas vehemently disagreed with the majority’s approach.

“The court and government do not point to a single historical law revoking a citizen’s Second Amendment right based on possible interpersonal violence,” he wrote.

Thomas wrote that the government has a better way to disarm dangerous people — by prosecuting them for criminal violence. What the government cannot do, he said, is to “strip the Second Amendment right of anyone subject to a protective order — even if he has never been accused or convicted of a crime.”

The case started in 2019 when Zackey Rahimi, a drug dealer in Texas, assaulted his girlfriend and threatened to shoot her if she told anyone, leading her to obtain a restraining order. The order suspended Rahimi’s handgun license and prohibited him from possessing firearms.

Rahimi defied the order in flagrant fashion, according to court records.

He threatened a different woman with a gun, leading to charges of assault with a deadly weapon. Then, in the space of two months, he opened fire in public five times.

Upset about a social media post from someone to whom he had sold drugs, for instance, he shot an AR-15 rifle into his former client’s home. When a fast-food restaurant declined a friend’s credit card, he fired several bullets into the air.

The shootings led to a search warrant of Rahimi’s home, which uncovered weapons, and he was charged with violating a federal law that makes it a crime for people subject to domestic violence orders to possess guns.

After a judge rejected his Second Amendment challenge to the law, he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to more than six years in prison. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at first affirmed his conviction in a short decision, rejecting the argument that the law violated the Second Amendment in a footnote.

But the appeals court reversed course in 2023, a year after the Supreme Court decided Bruen. It rejected a variety of old laws identified by the government as possible analogues, saying they did not sufficiently resemble the one concerning domestic violence orders.

Many of them, Judge Cory T. Wilson wrote for the panel, “disarmed classes of people considered to be dangerous, specifically including those unwilling to take an oath of allegiance, slaves and Native Americans.” That was different, he wrote, from domestic violence orders, which make case-by-case judgments about a particular individual’s dangerousness.

Wilson, who was appointed by President Donald Trump, wrote that the government’s insistence that it could disarm people who were not law-abiding “admits to no true limiting principle.”

“Could speeders be stripped of their right to keep and bear arms?” he asked. “Political nonconformists? People who do not recycle or drive an electric vehicle?”

Wilson acknowledged that the federal law at issue in the case “embodies salutary policy goals meant to protect vulnerable people in our society.” But he said the approach required by the Bruen decision did not allow courts to weigh the benefits of the law against its burdens. What was significant, he wrote, quoting that decision, was that “our ancestors would never have accepted” the law on domestic violence orders.

Roberts wrote that old laws requiring people suspected of future misbehavior to post surety bonds and ones barring going armed to instill fear in others were sufficiently analogous to the domestic violence law.

“Taken together, the surety and going armed laws confirm what common sense suggests: When an individual poses a clear threat of physical violence to another, the threatening individual may be disarmed,” he wrote, adding that the challenged modern law “is by no means identical to these founding era regimes, but it does not need to be.”

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