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The Supreme Court Is Taking a Case That Could Let ‘Unintentional’ Domestic Abusers Own Guns

The men bringing the case argue that firearms bans should not apply to abusers who get carried away in the heat of a dispute.

The Supreme Court agreed on Friday to hear a case about the gun rights of two men found to have committed domestic abuse in Maine. Central to the Justices’ eventual decision is this question: What kind of domestic abuse do you have to be convicted of to have your gun rights taken away?

Stephen Voisine and William Armstrong III, the men who brought the case, violated a federal law called the Lautenberg Amendment that prohibits domestic abusers from possessing guns. They are arguing that those convictions should be reversed, on the grounds that the particular domestic violence charges they were found guilty of in Maine should never have prevented them from getting guns in the first place. Viosine and Armstrong are making their case at a time when pro gun reform lawmakers and advocates are that the existing firearms ban for domestic abusers is neither broad enough nor effectively implemented.

According to the documents submitted to the Supreme Court, Voisine was charged with domestic violence in June 2003 after slapping his girlfriend while he was intoxicated. During the incident, his girlfriend had called 911 and told authorities that it was not the first time Voisine had hurt her. He pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor crime of simple assault, resulting in a conviction. Authorities didn’t learn that Voisine owned a gun until 2009, after a stranger reported to the police that Voisine had killed a bald eagle with a rifle. (The Wall Street Journal notes that Voisine may have been the first person to kill one of the birds in the state since President Franklin Roosevelt signed a law granting them protected status 75 years ago.)

Armstrong similarly pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor crime of simple assault in 2002 after he pushed his wife against a wall during an argument, leaving a “red mark.” Police found his weapons — six guns, as well as ammunition — years later, during a search of his house in 2010.

The Lautenberg Amendment states that any person “who has been convicted in any court of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” cannot purchase or receive a firearm. Because of Voisine’s and Armstrong’s records, they were convicted of violating that statute when found with guns. Armstrong was sentenced to three years of probation, and Voisine served one year in prison.

In the Supreme Court case, the lawyer for Voisine and Armstrong is arguing that the federal gun ban for domestic abusers was designed to apply to people who intended to harm their partners and had caused serious injury, and should not apply to those who get carried away in the heat of a dispute and do not seriously hurt their partners.

Lawyers for the government want Voisine and Armstrong’s convictions to stand. They say that it’s clear that the domestic violence gun ban covers instances where domestic assault is committed recklessly, as well as knowingly and intentionally. Pointing to the discussions lawmakers had while drafting the domestic violence gun ban, the government points out that Senator Lautenberg himself thought the ban might apply to an assailant who gets so riled up that he assaults his partner “almost without knowing what he is doing.”

The Supreme Court will likely hear the case in late February or early March. The petitioners have argued that if the Lautenberg Amendment is not to unconstitutionally infringe on Second Amendment rights, it can not apply to reckless domestic abuse that does not cause serious injury. But the court will not consider the constitutionality of the Lautenberg Amendment as a whole, instead only seeking to answer whether the domestic abuse gun ban should apply to impulsive abusers. If the Justices agree with Voisine and Armstrong, it would narrow the kinds of state domestic violence convictions that prevent abusers from getting a gun.