By John Kruzel
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court, which last year expanded gun rights in a landmark ruling, is set to return to the issue in a major case testing whether a law that keeps firearms away from people under domestic-violence restraining orders violates the Constitution.
It is one of the biggest cases that the court, with its 6-3 conservative majority, has agreed to hear during its next term, which begins in October. The justices wrapped up their latest nine-month term last week with important rulings rejecting affirmative action in collegiate admissions, undermining LGBT rights and invalidating President Joe Biden’s student debt relief after a year earlier overturning abortion rights.
The case involves a Texas man named Zackey Rahimi who was convicted under a 1994 federal law that prohibits a person subject to a domestic violence restraining order – as he was after assaulting his girlfriend – from possessing a firearm.
Rahimi challenged his conviction on the grounds that the law violated the Constitution’s Second Amendment “right to keep and bear arms,” and won. Biden’s administration has appealed.
A ruling is expected by June 2024, with the U.S. presidential race kicking into high gear.
“The Supreme Court must reverse this dangerous ruling,” Janet Carter of the gun-violence prevention group Everytown Law said. “Domestic abusers do not have – and should not have – the constitutional right to possess a firearm.”
The court’s conservative majority has taken an expansive view of Second Amendment rights in a nation facing persistent gun violence including mass shootings. The Second Amendment states, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” The court has widened gun rights in three major rulings since 2008.
The court in a June 2022 ruling called New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen invalidated New York state’s limits on carrying concealed handguns outside the home. In doing so, it created a new test for assessing firearms laws, saying restrictions must be “consistent with this nation’s historical tradition of firearm regulation,” not simply advance an important government interest. Rahimi prevailed under that test.
CAUGHT WITH GUNS
Rahimi received a six-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to illegally possessing a firearm while subject to a court-approved domestic violence restraining order his girlfriend obtained after he assaulted and threatened to shoot her. He later was arrested for violating it. He was involved in five shooting incidents spanning two months and was caught with a pistol and rifle during a police search of his home, legal filings showed.
Rahimi challenged his conviction, arguing that barring gun possession by people under restraining orders is unconstitutional under the Bruen case standard. The New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, with a unanimous panel of three Republican-appointed judges calling the ban “an outlier that our ancestors would never have accepted.”
Judge James Ho, appointed by former President Donald Trump, in a concurring opinion said a restraining order can be obtained relatively easily, adding that “there’s a tremendous risk that courts will enter protective orders automatically – despite the absence of any real threat of danger.”
Biden’s administration, in a filing by Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar, told the Supreme Court the Second Amendment allows the government “to disarm dangerous individuals – that is, those who would pose a serious risk of harm to themselves or to others if allowed to possess a firearm.”
Jeana Lungwitz, who directs the University of Texas School of Law’s Domestic Violence Clinic, cited statistics showing that more than a third of American women killed by men are slain by intimate partners with guns, and that domestic violence incidents involving a gun are 12 times more likely to result in death than those without a gun.
“The stakes are high for those experiencing domestic violence if violent partners can legally possess firearms,” Lungwitz said. “Not just high but deadly.”
Twenty-three states, mostly Democratic-led, and groups advocating for prevention of gun violence and domestic abuse have urged the justices to preserve the law.
Rahimi’s lawyer declined to comment. The National Rifle Association, an influential gun rights group, did not respond to a request for comment.
Pepperdine University Caruso School of Law professor Jacob Charles faulted the Bruen decision for eliminating the formal requirement that judges consider how effective a challenged law has been at preventing gun violence.
“We often think in terms of, ‘Is this law going to save lives?’ ‘Is it going to decrease threats and intimidation without overly burdening the lawful use of guns?'” Charles said. “By removing those kinds of considerations, it makes constitutional law – and Second Amendment law, in particular – even more removed from the way that ordinary citizens think about constitutional protections.”
(Reporting by John Kruzel; Editing by Will Dunham and Scott Malone)