The US Supreme Court heard oral arguments Tuesday in a case that could reinstate gun-possession rights to people who are under domestic violence restraining orders. The case, which will be decided next year, will have a far-reaching – and potentially deadly – impact on families and survivors of domestic abuse, prevention advocates and attorneys say.
“We were making progress. This has been settled law for a while now. It’s sad that we’re having to relitigate something that seems common sense,” said Kiersten Stewart, the vice-president of public policy and advocacy for the domestic violence prevention non-profit Futures Without Violence.
Tiffany Garner, who works as the policy advocate for children and health at Futures Without Violence, agreed. “We can’t afford any steps back,” she said. “If decisions like this are handed down, there is a risk that those who seek these orders in the future can still be in the presence of a firearm even when they’re trying to keep themselves and their families safe.”
The United States v Rahimi follows last year’s controversial ruling in New York State Rifle and Pistol Association Inc v Bruen, in which the supreme court overturned New York’s long-standing restrictions on carrying concealed firearms in public and created a new test to determine which gun restrictions are constitutional.
The Rahimi case focuses on a narrow federal firearm statute created through the 1994 Violence Against Women act that prohibits people who are subject to domestic violence protection orders (DVPOs) from having a gun. This policy was challenged in March when the fifth circuit court of appeals, a conservative court, ruled in favor of Zackey Rahimi, a Texas man who was put on a DVPO after allegedly assaulting his ex-girlfriend in 2019 and firing a gun when he noticed that bystanders were watching, according to the New York Times.
Despite the order, he continued to keep guns and was involved in five more shootings. Local police found a rifle and pistol in his home, according to court records, and he was eventually federally indicted for possession of a firearm while under a DVPO. He pleaded guilty, but after an appeal, the fifth circuit stepped in and sided with Rahimi. Rahimi is currently in a Texas county jail with pending state charges for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and discharging a firearm.
In the US, guns are used in more than half of domestic violence homicides, according to the National Institutes of Health. And while people across the gender spectrum face unique risks of this sort of violence, more than a third of the nation’s female homicide victims in 2021 were killed by a spouse or partner. For men during that same year, the figure was 6%, according to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Some advocates say they’re optimistic that the court recognizes the lethal combination of domestic violence and guns following Tuesday’s oral arguments. Though the justices questioned the US solicitor general Elizabeth Prelogar’s definitions of “law-abiding” and “responsible” citizen, theygenerally acknowledged that domestic violence is dangerous and serious.
“There was real fear going into the arguments that the justices would downplay domestic violence,” said Ciara Malone, the legal director of March for Our Lives, a gun-violence prevention group founded after the 2018 Parkland school shooting. “People wanted to hone in on the fact that domestic violence is a real issue in this country and when abusers have access it’s so much worse. And the judges seemed to accept that.”
Though the amount of awareness and number of national resources have grown since the Violence Against Women Act, abuse survivors having a civil recourse (rather than relying on criminal court) that preemptively disarms their abusers can be the difference between life or death, the Wisconsin congresswoman Gwen Moore said.
“Shelters are a place you can go but it’s only as good as being able to get out before you’re murdered. A shelter isn’t gonna help you if you’re dead,” said Moore, who in the lead-up to Tuesday’s oral arguments shared her own experiences of domestic abuse.
“The question we’re asking is: does your ability to own this thing – a gun – supersede someone’s right to live?” she continued. “It’s not the first time we’ve done this in the US: talk about how important people’s property rights are. But in the last 50 years, there has been a willingness to take firearms away from people who should not have them. There’s a general consensus that everyone doesn’t need to have a gun.”