Rights of domestic violence abusers to own guns being considered by the Supreme Court

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The case is U.S. v. Hayes, and the Court has been asked to rule on a Justice Department appeal asking for clarification of the federal law that criminalizes gun possession for people convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence. Via Sentencing Law and Policy, here are the facts:

In 1994, [Randy Edward] Hayes pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor battery offense under West Virginia law, in the magistrate court of Marion County, West Virginia (the “1994 State Offense”). The victim of the 1994 State Offense was Hayes’s then wife, Mary Ann (now Mary Carnes), with whom he lived and had a child. As a result of the 1994 State Offense, Hayes was sentenced to a year of probation.

Ten years later, on July 25, 2004, the authorities in Marion County were summoned to Hayes’s home in response to a domestic violence 911 call. When police officers arrived at Hayes’s home, he consented to a search thereof, and a Winchester rifle was discovered. Hayes was arrested and, on January 4, 2005, indicted in federal court on three charges of possessing firearms after having been convicted of an MCDV, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § § 922(g)(9) and 924(a)(2).

More details, and links to the pleadings and amicus briefs here.

The L.A. Times reported on Monday’s oral argument as follows:

Congress in 1996 sought to strengthen the laws against domestic violence. Before, only persons convicted of violent felonies in such situations lost their rights to own a gun. Going a step further, lawmakers adopted an amendment to take away gun rights for those who had a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” on their records.

Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.), the amendment’s sponsor, said he was closing a loophole. In domestic violence cases, local prosecutors often agree to have defendants plead guilty to a misdemeanor assault or battery, which usually calls for less than a year in jail, he said.

“There is no reason for someone who beats their wives or abuses their children to own a gun. When you combine wife beaters and guns, the end result is more death,” Lautenberg said in the Senate before the amendment was enacted.

But last year, the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Virginia cast doubt on the law’s reach. Its judges decided the federal gun ban did not cover misdemeanor convictions involving assault or battery at home. Instead, it said the federal ban applied only to those convicted under a state’s domestic violence law.

That would make the federal gun law “a dead letter in two-thirds of the states,” according to the government’s lawyer. Saharsky said most states do not have misdemeanor laws specifically targeting domestic violence.

Justice Antonin Scalia was unswayed by that argument. “People are governed by the law that is passed, not by the law that Congress intended to pass,” he said. He and Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said the law as written appeared to apply only to domestic violence measures, not the more common laws against assault and battery.

Scalia wrote the 5-4 opinion in June which held for the first time that the 2nd Amendment protects an individual’s right to have a gun. He said then that the decision did not shield criminals who committed serious crimes with a gun.

But during Monday’s argument, Scalia said possessing a gun was “lawful conduct,” and a wife-beating charge lodged against a West Virginia man was “not that serious an offense.”

The government lawyer shot back that the defendant “hit his wife all around the face until it swelled out, kicked her all around her body, kicked her in the ribs. . . . ”

“Then he should have been charged with a felony,” Scalia interjected, “but he wasn’t.”

That article also notes that The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence “said a ruling for Hayes ‘could re-arm thousands of convicted domestic violence abusers,’ and noted that about 14% “of all police officer deaths occur during a response to domestic violence calls.   If re-arming people convicted of domestic abuse puts police in danger, maybe some of the Justices will at least find that compelling. Scalia doesn’t seem to worry much about the actual victims, as reflected by the bolded portion of the excerpt above. Every year between 1,000 and 1,600 women die at the hands of their male partners. These states and the Brady Center’s view of the case can be found here.

–Ann Bartow

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