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Ilana Eisenberg argues for the federal government on February 29.

Domestic Violence

Supreme Court Upholds Federal Gun Ban For ‘Reckless’ Acts of Domestic Violence

One of the petitioner’s 14 convictions was for slapping his girlfriend so hard that she hit the floor.

The Supreme Court on Monday held that a federal gun ban applies to people convicted of using physical force against a domestic partner or family member, even if they didn’t intend to do harm.

In a 6-2 decision, the court ruled that domestic violence committed recklessly — not just intentionally — was sufficient to trigger the Lautenberg Amendment, which prohibits individuals with misdemeanor domestic violence convictions from purchasing or possessing a gun. The ruling was a victory for domestic violence advocates, who have long argued that seemingly minor acts of violence often lead to much greater harm, and are a clear indication of an unstable personality.

Impulsive or reckless acts, which might leave a victim with a bruise, but not a broken leg — for example — often serve as a predictor for future, more serious abuse, advocates argue.

“I find this opinion, which distances us from older ways of thinking about domestic violence, very encouraging,” says Joan Meier, a law professor at George Washington University who wrote an amicus brief for the government.

The underlying case was brought by two men from Maine, Stephen Voisine and William Armstrong, who challenged their convictions for unlawful weapons possession after they were caught with firearms — Voisine after shooting and killing a bald eagle. Both men had been repeatedly convicted of domestic assault, though in each instance the charge was reckless behavior, not intentional behavior.

Voisine and Armstrong argued that their impulsive behavior wasn’t serious enough to trigger the Lautenberg Amendment, which defines domestic violence as “the use of physical force” against a family member or intimate partner. Writing for the majority, Justice Elena Kagan said reckless violence against a partner squarely constituted “the use of physical force.”

Kagan said that Lautenberg was intended to stop people who had committed violence against family members and partners from obtaining guns at a time, the mid-1990s, when prosecutions for domestic violence offenses rarely resulted in felony convictions.

The case hinged on the scope of the word “use.” The petitioners who were seeking to reverse their gun convictions claimed that their behavior did not count as the use of physical force under the law.

One of Voisine’s 14 convictions came after he slapped his girlfriend so hard that she fell to the floor, according to a police report. Court records show that on separate occasions, Armstrong’s wife, ex-girlfriends, and mother called the police on him for pushing, grabbing, and hitting them.

The petitioners argued that use of force, as defined by centuries-old concepts under common law, requires intentionality — and that their acts were merely reckless.

The court firmly rejected that argument.

We see no reason to wind the clock back so far,” Kagan wrote.  

Clarence Thomas, who broke his 10-year long silence during oral arguments for Voisine in February, dissented from the opinion. He was joined in part by Sonia Sotomayor.

[Illustration: Art Lien]