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NATION

The Supreme Court upholds a gun control law intended to protect domestic violence victims

Mark Sherman and Lindsay Whitehurst
Associated Press

Washington – The Supreme Court on Friday upheld a federal gun control law that is intended to protect victims of domestic violence.

In their first Second Amendment case since they expanded gun rights in 2022, the justices ruled 8-1 in favor of a 1994 ban on firearms for people under restraining orders to stay away from their spouses or partners. The justices reversed a ruling from the federal appeals court in New Orleans that had struck down the law.

Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the court, said the law uses “common sense” and applies only "after a judge determines that an individual poses a credible threat” of physical violence.

Justice Clarence Thomas, the author of the major 2022 Bruen ruling in a New York case, dissented.

President Joe Biden, who has been critical of previous high-court rulings on guns, abortion and other hot-button issues, praised the outcome.

“No one who has been abused should have to worry about their abuser getting a gun,” Biden said in a statement. “As a result of today’s ruling, survivors of domestic violence and their families will still be able to count on critical protections, just as they have for the past three decades.”

Last week, the court overturned a Trump-era ban on bump stocks, the rapid-fire gun accessories used in the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history. The court ruled that the Justice Department exceeded its authority in imposing that ban.

Friday's case stemmed directly from the Supreme Court’s Bruen decision in June 2022. A Texas man, Zackey Rahimi, was accused of hitting his girlfriend during an argument in a parking lot and later threatening to shoot her.

At arguments in November, some justices voiced concern that a ruling for Rahimi could also jeopardize the background check system that the Biden administration said has stopped more than 75,000 gun sales in the past 25 years based on domestic violence protective orders.

The case also had been closely watched for its potential to affect cases in which other gun ownership laws have been called into question, including in the high-profile prosecution of Hunter Biden. Biden’s son was convicted of lying on a form to buy a firearm while he was addicted to drugs. His lawyers have signaled they will appeal.

A decision to strike down the domestic violence gun law might have signaled the court's skepticism of the other laws as well. But Friday's decision did not suggest that the court would necessarily uphold those law either.

The justices could weigh in soon in one or more of those other cases.

Many of the gun law cases grow out of the Bruen decision. 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.

Roberts turned to history in his opinion. "Since the founding, our nation’s firearm laws have included provisions preventing individuals who threaten physical harm to others from misusing firearms,” he wrote.

Some courts have gone too far, Roberts wrote, in applying Bruen and other gun rights cases. "These precedents were not meant to suggest a law trapped in amber,” he wrote.

In dissent, Thomas wrote, the law “strips an individual of his ability to possess firearms and ammunition without any due process.”

The government “failed to produce any evidence” that the law is consistent with the nation’s historical tradition of firearm regulation, he wrote.

“Not a single historical regulation justifies the statute at issue,” Thomas wrote.

Seven of the nine justices wrote opinions in the guns case spanning 94 pages, mainly focused on the proper use of history in evaluating gun restrictions and other limitations on constitutional rights.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that Roberts' opinion “permits a historical inquiry calibrated to reveal something useful and transferable to the present day, while the dissent would make the historical inquiry so exacting as to be useless.” She was among the three liberal justices who dissented in the Bruen case.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who was part of the Bruen majority, noted that the court probably will have many more cases about the reach of gun rights because “Second Amendment jurisprudence is in its early innings.” It was only in 2008 that the court declared for the first time that the Constitution protects an individual's right to keep and bear arms.

Rahimi’s case reached the Supreme Court after prosecutors appealed a ruling that threw out his conviction for possessing guns while subject to a restraining order.

Rahimi was involved in five shootings over two months in and around Arlington, Texas, U.S. Circuit Judge Cory Wilson noted. When police identified Rahimi as a suspect in the shootings and showed up at his home with a search warrant, he admitted having guns in the house and being subject to a domestic violence restraining order that prohibited gun possession, Wilson wrote.

But even though Rahimi was hardly “a model citizen,” Wilson wrote, the law at issue could not be justified by looking to history. That’s the test Justice Thomas laid out in his opinion for the court in Bruen.

The appeals court initially upheld the conviction under a balancing test that included whether the restriction enhances public safety. But the panel reversed course after Bruen. At least one district court has upheld the law since the Bruen decision.

After the ruling, Attorney General Merrick Garland said the Justice Department “will continue to enforce this important statute, which for nearly 30 years has helped to protect victims and survivors of domestic violence from their abusers.”

“As the Justice Department argued, and as the Court reaffirmed today, that commonsense prohibition is entirely consistent with the Court’s precedent and the text and history of the Second Amendment,” Garland said in a statement.

Advocates for domestic violence victims and gun control groups had called on the court to uphold the law.

Firearms are the most common weapon used in homicides of spouses, intimate partners, children or relatives in recent years, according to data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Guns were used in more than half, 57%, of those killings in 2020, a year that saw an overall increase in domestic violence during the coronavirus pandemic.

Seventy women a month, on average, are shot and killed by intimate partners, according to the gun control group Everytown for Gun Safety.

Gun rights groups backed Rahimi, arguing that the appeals court got it right when it looked at American history and found no restriction close enough to justify the gun ban.

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Associated Press writers Fatima Hussein, Alanna Durkin Richer and Lindsay Whitehurst contributed to this report.