The federal law banning gun sales to people convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence does not violate the Second Amendment, an appellate court panel ruled on Thursday.
In a 2-1 decision, judges on the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the Lautenberg Amendment, a 1996 law that added lower-level domestic violence convictions to the list of prohibitors for gun sales.
The case, Stimmel v. Sessions, was brought by an Ohio man who was denied a gun purchase in 2002 after a background check showed he had pleaded no contest to domestic assault. According to an arrest report filed in the 1997 case, Terry Lee Stimmel injured his then-wife’s head during an altercation in which he threw her against a wall, shoved her to the ground, and tried to forcibly remove her wedding rings. Stimmel served one day of a 180-day jail sentence, and has never been convicted of another crime, a record of good behavior he claimed should result in the restoration of his gun rights.
The Sixth Circuit disagreed. As Judge Richard Griffin wrote in his opinion, misdemeanor domestic violence isn’t like other lesser crimes. It is particularly dangerous, especially because abusers tend to be recidivists. “Essential here is that the victim is more likely to be killed when a gun is present,” he noted.
Judges have recognized that the special risks presented by domestic violence give the state a compelling interest to restrict abusers’ access to guns. Griffin, a George W. Bush appointee, wrote that the law has been unanimously upheld by federal courts, even those applying the extremely high “strict scrutiny” standard that often sinks regulations.
As attorneys from the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence argued in the sole amicus brief filed in the case, the fact that many domestic violence convictions are for misdemeanors doesn’t mean the offenses are not serious and potentially deadly: rather, that’s a reflection of the structure of the legal system, which encourages pleading to lesser charges, especially with difficult-to-prosecute crimes like domestic violence.
“Indeed, it was Congress’s recognition that many dangerous domestic abusers plead down to misdemeanors — and thus avoid the terms of the felon gun prohibition — that led them to close that loophole in the law and enact [the Lautenberg Amendment],” the Law Center attorneys wrote.
Notably, many of the decisions upholding the domestic violence prohibition cited in the Stimmel decision came after the Supreme Court’s 2008 decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, which established that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to gun ownership.
The decision is another instance of gun restrictions being granted constitutional protection by the National Rifle Association’s favorite Supreme Court decision, which was used to strike down handgun bans in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere. Justice Antonin Scalia made clear in the Heller opinion that the Second Amendment squarely applied to “law-abiding” citizens, and that the guarantee of a right to own guns didn’t undermine existing laws barring certain categories of dangerous people from buying firearms.