U.S. Supreme Court allows gun restrictions for domestic violence suspects

Justices ruled that the federal government did not violate a Texas man’s Second Amendment rights when barring him from possessing firearms.

click to enlarge The United States Supreme Court is seen on May 18, 2024 in Washington, D.C. - Texas Tribune / Eli Hartman
Texas Tribune / Eli Hartman
The United States Supreme Court is seen on May 18, 2024 in Washington, D.C.
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In a 8-1 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a major gun rights case Friday that protective orders can bar people accused of domestic violence from owning firearms. Zackey Rahimi, a Texas man, unsuccessfully claimed it’s unconstitutional to restrict people under domestic violence protective orders from accessing firearms.

“Since the Founding, the Nation’s firearm laws have included regulations to stop individuals who threaten physical harm to others from misusing firearms,” the court’s majority opinion read.

The case was the high court’s first major firearms ruling since a 2022 decision that established a new standard for determining if gun regulations are constitutional. Friday’s ruling overturned the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision that found the Second Amendment protects domestic abusers’ right to firearms.

Justice Clarence Thomas, the author of the 2022 decision, was the sole dissenter.

The high court’s decision provided some additional context for interpreting the new test for firearm regulations. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the court’s opinion that the 2022 decision, New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen, already explained some firearm restrictions are lawful under the Second Amendment if they fall within the “historical tradition of firearm regulation.” He added it is the government’s responsibility to justify regulation of gun restrictions that fall within this historical tradition.

In Friday’s ruling, Roberts suggested other courts misunderstood the methodology behind Bruen.

“These precedents were not meant to suggest a law trapped in amber,” the chief justice wrote.

Advocates for domestic violence survivors celebrated Friday’s decision and its impact in Texas where firearm access and domestic violence intersect with fatal consequences.

“This ruling acknowledges that the life of a domestic violence survivor takes precedence over the ability of violent offenders to retain possession of their weapons after being prohibited under the law,” said Molly Voyles, director of public policy at TCFV.

Gun Owners of America, which filed an amicus brief in the case, criticized the ruling. The gun rights group acknowledged Rahimi was a dangerous individual and was already barred from possessing guns as a result of his imprisonment.

“These restraining orders do not prove someone guilty of a violent crime, and they often are weaponized by attorneys and handed out freely by judges in divorce proceedings,” said Erich Pratt, senior vice president of GOA. “However, this ruling will disarm others who have never actually committed any domestic violence.”

Attempting to clarify Bruen, Friday’s opinion said the Second Amendment guarantees access to modern-day weapons not in existence at the nation’s founding.

“By that same logic, the Second Amendment permits more than just regulations identical to those existing in 1791,” Roberts wrote.

In Friday’s ruling, justices said the 5th Circuit erred in interpreting Bruen to require firearm regulations that have a “historical twin,” rather than a “historical analogue.”

Justices Amy Coney Barrett, Neil Gorsuch, Ketanji Brown Jackson, Brett Kavanaugh, Sonia Sotomayor each wrote concurring opinions. Justice Elena Kagan signed on to Sotomayor’s concurring opinion.

In his dissent, Thomas wrote that not a single historical regulation justifies restricting guns from domestic abuse suspects.

Rahimi was accused of five shootings around Arlington within the span of a month during the winter of 2020, according to court documents. Those incidents included shooting at a constable’s car and firing a weapon into the air outside a Whataburger after his friend’s credit card was declined. Prior to the shootings, a state court issued a protective order against Rahimi in February 2020 after he allegedly assaulted his girlfriend. Rahimi was charged by a federal grand jury for possession of a firearm while under a domestic violence protective order.

Rahimi argued in court that the charge violated his constitutional rights, and the courts initially disagreed. But in the wake of the landmark Bruen decision, in which the Supreme Court established a new standard that modern gun control laws must be “consistent with the Second Amendment’s text and historical understanding,” Rahimi’s case was reheard and the 5th Circuit ruled in his favor.

Domestic violence in Texas has continued a steady increase in recent years, according to the Texas Council on Family Violence. Between 2018 and 2022, reported incidents of family violence have increased 33% and the number of women killed by an intimate partner has nearly doubled. In 2022, intimate partners killed 129 women in Texas by firearm, TCFV reported.

TCFV’s review of family violence in 2022 found that the number of family violence offenses reported by the Texas Department of Public Safety increased 10% in 2022 to 254,339 compared to 231,207 in 2021.

Eric Ruben, an assistant professor of law at the Southern Methodist University Dedman School of Law, doesn’t anticipate the Rahimi decision will clear up much of the confusion observed in the lower courts. The Rahimi decision will protect some modern day gun laws from being challenged in the post-Bruen landscape, Ruben said, but there is still room for subjectivity in how courts will apply historical principles to laws regulating assault weapons and other modern day issues.

Despite that six conservative justices signing onto Thomas’ opinion in the Bruen case, Ruben said it was telling that it took over 100 pages of opinion to reach the conclusion that Rahimi should not have access to guns.

“We are likely to see a steady stream of Second Amendment cases going up to the Supreme Court,” Ruben said. “Because in the absence of more guidance from the justices, the lower courts are going to continue to be adrift.”

This article originally appeared in the Texas Tribune.

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