Violence Against Women

SCOTUS Upholds Strong Domestic Violence Gun Ban Law

The Supreme Court decided 6-2 in Voisine v. United States to affirm protections for victims of domestic violence by preventing individuals convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence from owning guns.

The case involved two petitioners, Stephen Voisine and William Armstrong, both of whom were convicted twice of domestic violence misdemeanors in Maine. Maine law defines assault as occurring when one “intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly causes bodily injury…” The petitioners argued that their crimes could have been committed “recklessly” and thus lacked the intention or knowledge of wrong doing for their crime to fall under the federal Domestic Violence Offender Gun Ban Law.

The 1996 federal law, often referred to as the Lautenberg Amendment, was strongly supported by the Feminist Majority and National Network to End Domestic Violence. While individuals convicted of felonies are banned from owning guns, this law also bans those convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence from owning firearms.

“Having supported vigorously the passage of this important law, I am thrilled the Court’s majority recognized assault is assault whether it’s committed intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly. This decision has and will save countless women’s lives—that’s why the Feminist Majority, the National Network to End Domestic Violence, and its then director, Donna Edwards, as well as Senator Lautenberg and his staff, worked so hard for it,” explained Eleanor Smeal, President of the Feminist Majority.

“Domestic violence is a crime that is the sum of many large and small acts of abuse and coercion,” stated the National Domestic Violence Hotline in their Amici Curiae to the Court. “It is therefore incorrect to classify an individual who ‘recklessly’ abuses a domestic partner as acting unintentionally or somehow being less culpable of domestic violence.”

Defending Maine’s definition of domestic violence, Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the majority, “A person who assaults another recklessly ‘uses’ force, no less than one who carries out that same action knowingly or intentionally.”

Justice Clarence Thomas and Justice Sonya Sotomayor dissented from the majority’s interpretation of “recklessness.”  Justice Thomas felt so strongly that he spoke from the bench for the first time in ten years during the February hearing of the case to question the constitutionality of barring misdemeanor domestic abusers from owning firearms. He was the sole Justice who argued that Voisine had been robbed of his constitutional right to bear arms.

Domestic violence abusers have a high rate of recidivism, and the violence is likely to escalate over time. When a firearm is present in a home plagued by domestic abuse, “reckless” or otherwise, the risk for murder at the hand of the abuser quintuples.

Sources:

Supreme Court of the United States 12/17/15, 6/27/16; Criminal Defense Lawyer; American Bar Association; Salon 6/27/16; Domestic Violence and Recidivism Reduction Project 2016; National Institute of Health 7/13.