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Supreme Court Upholds Ban on Domestic Abusers Owning Guns

Supreme Court Upholds Ban on Domestic Abusers Owning Guns

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The Supreme Court ruled on Friday 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 G. Roberts Jr., writing for the majority in the 8-to-1 decision, said that 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,” the chief justice 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, the 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 the University of California, Los Angeles. “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, Chief Justice Roberts wrote on 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, Justice 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.

Justice 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 court’s three liberal members, who had dissented in the Bruen case, wrote that they continued to think that the ruling was a grave error. But, in a pair of concurring opinions, they said they were happy to embrace the new limits.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justice Elena Kagan, welcomed what she called a clarification of the Bruen standard.

“The court’s interpretation,” she wrote, “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, a too-sensitive alarm that sounds whenever a regulation did not exist in an essentially identical form at the founding.”

She added that Justice Thomas’s analysis would produce a perverse result. “Under the dissent’s approach,” she wrote, “the legislatures of today would be limited not by a distant generation’s determination that such a law was unconstitutional, but by a distant generation’s failure to consider that such a law might be necessary.”

Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, in her own concurrence, said the Bruen decision had left lower courts in a state of deep confusion. The chief justice’s majority opinion, she wrote, was “a tacit admission that lower courts are struggling.”

She added: “In my view, the blame may lie with us, not with them.”

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 Mr. Rahimi’s handgun license and prohibited him from possessing firearms.

Mr. 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 Mr. 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 U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit 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.

Judge Wilson, who was appointed by President Donald J. 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?”

Judge 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.

Chief Justice 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.”

The chief justice said the court’s opinion was modest. “We conclude,” he wrote, “only this: An individual found by a court to pose a credible threat to the physical safety of another may be temporarily disarmed consistent with the Second Amendment.”

The three justices appointed by President Donald J. Trump each filed concurring opinions musing on the scope of the majority’s approach and how originalism, a method of interpreting the Constitution to unearth its original meaning, ought to work in practice.

The Fifth Circuit, which ruled for Mr. Rahimi, is dominated by Republican appointees and has issued a series of aggressively conservative rulings that have met a frosty reception at the Supreme Court, itself quite conservative, on issues like immigration, abortion pills, contacts with social media companies and so-called ghost guns. Some of those Supreme Court rulings were tentative, but the overall picture is one of an appeals court out of step with the justices.

In the case decided Friday, Chief Justice Roberts said the appeals court’s opinion was an exercise in “slaying a straw man.”

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