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Domestic Violence Conviction Can Keep You From Owning Firearms

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. | Last updated on

The Supreme Court expanded the reach yesterday of a federal law that prevents domestic abusers from owning a gun. In Voisine v. United States, the Court held six to two that federal laws prohibiting gun ownership to those convicted of a "misdemeanor crime of violence" extend to those where the violence was merely reckless, as opposed to intentional.

The ruling reconciles the federal law, which requires a showing of violence, with state criminal laws that require no such showing. Touching on both criminal law and the Second Amendment, the case inspired Justice Clarence Thomas's first question from the bench in ten years when it was argued in February.

Recklessness Is Enough

The federal government has long prevented felons from owning firearms. But when it comes to domestic violence, most abusers are convicted of misdemeanors, allowing them to retain their firearms.

Twenty years ago, Congress moved to fix this loophole, prohibiting those convicted of a "misdemeanor crime of domestic violence" from owning firearms. The law further specified that the misdemeanor must have, "as an element, the use or attempted use of physical force."

But the misdemeanor convictions under state law that can trigger the federal prohibition often vary from state to state. In the particular cases before the Court, two men, Stephen Voisine and William Armstrong, had pleaded guilty to domestic abuse in Maine. Under Maine's law, it was a misdemeanor to "intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly cause bodily injury or offensive physical contact to another person." The men argued that their convictions could have been based on recklessness, and therefore did not qualify as a crime of violence under the federal statute.

The Supreme Court disagreed, however. In a majority opinion written by Justice Kagan, the Court found that "a person who assaults another recklessly uses force no less than one who carries out that same action knowingly or intentionally."

This extends the Court's logic in 2014's United States v. Castleman. In that decision, a unanimous Court found that a knowing or offensive touching resulting in a misdemeanor conviction could trigger the firearms ban. Here, the Court extended that to reckless use of force as well. Both opinions emphasized Congress's desire to keep anyone convicted of domestic violence involving the "volitional" use of force from owning firearms.

Currently, more than half the women murdered with guns in America die at the hands of intimate partners or family members.

Justice Thomas Speaks

Justice Thomas dissented from the ruling, joined in part by Justice Sotomayor, putting forward an alternative definition of the "use of force," replete with a host of hypotheticals from "The Text-Messaging Dad" to "The Reckless Policeman." (Law students, expect to see similar hypos sometime in the future -- just remember that Thomas's definition of the law isn't the one that would apply.)

Justice Thomas also criticized the Court for being too free to limit offenders' access to firearms, extending, he says, "the statute into that constitutionally problematic territory."

It was concerns over the Second Amendment that caused Justice Thomas to pipe up from the bench for the first time in ten years just a few months ago. During oral arguments, Justice Thomas pelted lawyers with a series of uncharacteristic questions, including wondering whether other constitutional rights could be so easily limited based upon misdemeanor convictions.

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