Supreme Court denies guns to domestic abusers

By David G. Savage

Los Angeles Times

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Washington —- The Supreme Court Tuesday upheld a broad federal gun control law that strips gun rights from the many thousands of people who have been convicted of any domestic-violence crime.
In a 7-2 decision, the justices ruled that the federal ban on gun possession was intended to keep “firearms out of the hands of domestic abusers,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said.

The law covers not only people who have felony convictions, she said, but also misdemeanors involving an assault against a former or current spouse or a live-in partner, as well as a child, a parent or others who live together in the home. “Firearms and domestic strife are a potentially deadly combination nationwide,” Ginsburg wrote.

She cited a report from the National Institute of Justice that found about 1.3 million women and 835,000 men are assaulted physically by a spouse or partner each year. Many more such offenses are never reported, the report found.

In Tuesday’s decision, the court settled a linguistic dispute over how to read the law. Since 1968, federal law has prohibited felons from having a firearm. That ban was extended in 1996 to cover a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence.”

Some judges read this narrowly to mean the law did not apply to people who were charged with assaulting or physically threatening someone with whom they had once lived. These judges said the law applied only to those who were convicted or who plead guilty to a “domestic violence” crime.

Some states have laws against “domestic violence” and charge offenders under it. Other states and prosecutors routinely charge offenders with assault or battery.

In the ruling, United States v. Hayes, the court said the gun ban applies to all such offenses, as long as it can be shown there was a domestic relationship between the offender and victim.

The ruling reinstates an illegal gun possession charge against Randy Hayes, a West Virginia man who was found to have three guns in 2004. He also had on his record a 1994 misdemeanor for battery against a woman who “was cohabiting with him.”

Hayes had argued that the federal gun-control law did not apply because he had been convicted of “generic battery,” not a “domestic violence” law. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., agreed, limiting the reach of the law.

Had the Supreme Court agreed, it could have restored gun rights to thousands of people in 25 states that do have on the books a specific “domestic violence” law, according to the Brady Center for Handgun Violence.

Paul Helmke, president of the Brady center, called Tuesday’s decision “the right one for victims of domestic abuse and to protect law enforcement officers who are our first responders to domestic violence incidents.”

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), who sponsored the 1996 amendment that expanded the gun control law, said the measure “has kept more than 150,000 guns out of the hands out of domestic abusers. … Today’s decision means we can continue keeping guns out of dangerous hands and saving innocent lives.”



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