High Court To Look At Gun Rights In Domestic Violence Cases

By Marco Poggio | June 30, 2023, 4:52 PM EDT ·

The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday said it will rule on whether a federal law forbidding people subject to domestic violence restraining orders from possessing firearms violates the Constitution, one year after issuing a landmark decision that expanded gun rights.

In United States v. Rahimi, the government has argued it has the authority under a specific section of the federal gun possession statute to take guns away from people like Zackey Rahimi, a Texas man who was indicted in federal court and accused of possessing guns and ammunition following a restraining order.

In granting review in the case, the high court signaled its continued interest in gun rights following last year's watershed ruling in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen, where it struck down New York's century-old gun licensing law as unconstitutional and granted people the right to carry firearms outside the home for the first time.

In Rahimi, the government is asking the justices to overrule a Fifth Circuit opinion that held that Section 922(g)(8) , Title 18 of the U.S. Code violates the Second Amendment "on its face" after reversing its own precedent in the aftermath of the Bruen decision.

Section 922(g)(8), which Congress enacted in 1994, prohibits a person who is subject to a domestic violence restraining order from possessing a firearm. The section applies only if the restraining order includes a finding that an individual poses a credible threat to the physical safety of a partner or child. The government has said it needs that authority to guarantee the safety of people who are threatened by their violent domestic partners.

"More than a million acts of domestic violence occur in the United States every year, and the presence of a firearm increases the chance that violence will escalate to homicide," the government said in its petition for certiorari filed on March 17.

Rahimi was under a restraining order for knocking his girlfriend to the ground during a fight in a parking lot in Arlington, Texas, when police found a .45-caliber pistol, a .308-caliber rifle and ammunition in his room. A federal grand jury charged Rahimi with violating the federal statute, an offense for which he faced a sentence of up to 10 years in prison.

Rahimi moved to have the charges dismissed, saying the law violated the Second Amendment. A district court denied his motion, saying the Fifth Circuit had upheld the constitutionality of the law in previous rulings. On appeal, the Fifth Circuit initially agreed with the lower court. But after the Supreme Court's ruling in Bruen, it changed course, withdrawing its prior decision in Rahimi's case and issuing a reversal, arguing the federal law he was charged under was unconstitutional.

"Rahimi, while hardly a model citizen, is nonetheless part of the political community entitled to the Second Amendment's guarantees," the Fifth Circuit three-judge panel ruled on Feb. 2.

In its petition for certiorari, the government called the Fifth Circuit's ruling "profoundly mistaken" and said Supreme Court precedent has long allowed for restrictions on the Second Amendment rights of individuals who pose a threat to the safety of others.

Arguing for the government, the office of Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar invoked the 2008 landmark decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, which recognized the right of private citizens to possess firearms in self-defense inside their homes but also specified that the right is "not unlimited."

For example, the court said in that decision, the Constitution permits the government to ban dangerous and unusual weapons, exclude firearms from "sensitive places" and forbid gun possession by felons and people who are mentally ill. The government said in both the Heller and Bruen rulings, the court recognized the right to bear arms only to "law-abiding" people.

"In concluding that Section 922(g)(8) lacks adequate historical support, the Fifth Circuit missed the forest for the trees," the government said in the petition. "The court overlooked the strong historical evidence supporting the general principle that the government may disarm dangerous individuals."

It is unclear how the Supreme Court, in particular the conservative majority that expanded gun rights in Bruen, would rule on Rahimi's case. In the majority opinion in Bruen, Justice Clarence Thomas said any government action or legislation limiting gun rights must be analyzed under the lens of "historical tradition" to determine whether it is compatible with firearm regulations at the time the Second Amendment was enacted.

Legal experts have said that rationale opened the door for more future scrutiny on both state and federal gun laws that have long been deemed constitutional.

In a concurring opinion in Bruen, Justice Samuel Alito said the ruling "decides nothing about who may lawfully possess a firearm or the requirements that must be met to buy a gun."

The government argued in its petition that at least two U.S. Courts of Appeals — the Third and Eighth circuits — have ruled that disarming people subject to domestic violence restrictive orders is constitutional by using the type of historical comparison analysis the Bruen decision prescribed. Those rulings are now at odds with the Fifth Circuit's decision in Rahimi, the petition says.

At least 23 states and the District of Columbia have supported the government's position in a friends-of-the-court brief filed in April saying the Fifth Circuit's ruling threatens to upend "long-standing and commonsense" efforts by the states to protect public safety.

"If not reversed, the decision below will interfere with the government's ability to utilize a key tool for protecting the victims of domestic abuse," the states said in the brief.

In a separate amicus brief citing what he described as the effectiveness of gun control laws in California, Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, said that approximately one in five homicide victims in the United States is killed by an intimate partner.

"The Fifth Circuit's decision threatens the lives of countless Americans, enabling entirely foreseeable acts of gun violence," the governor's brief says.

The government said the presence of a gun in a house with a domestic abuser increases the risk of homicide sixfold.

"The Fifth Circuit held, however, that the Second Amendment forecloses Congress' effort to address that danger," the petition said. "The exceptional importance of the question presented underscores the need for this court's review."

But in his opposition brief, Rahimi said the federal government charges fewer than 50 people per year nationwide under the law in question in his case, arguing the dispute over the statute was not as important as the government described it to be.

Disagreeing with the government, Rahimi said the Fifth Circuit correctly applied the Bruen ruling's historical analysis framework to the law, which he argued is incompatible with the Second Amendment. Rahimi also said it was "too early" to litigate constitutional issues involving gun laws in light of the Bruen decision.

"Eleven months after Bruen, the circuit courts have issued just three precedential decisions evaluating federal firearms bans after Bruen — and one of those has already been withdrawn and reargued," Rahimi's brief said.

"The court should deny the petition," it said.

The U.S. government is represented by the office of Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar.

Rahimi is represented by James Matthew Wright of the Office of the Federal Public Defender.

The case is United States v. Zackey Rahimi, case number 22-915, in the Supreme Court of the United States.

--Editing by Robert Rudinger.

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