Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Supreme Court's decision to ban domestic abusers from owning firearms has rural importance

The U.S. Supreme Court last month voted to uphold a ban prohibiting people convicted of domestic-violence misdemeanors from owning or possessing firearms, a decision that could have particular effects in rural areas. Rural residents are more than twice as likely (39 percent to 18 percent among urban residents) to own guns, says the Pew Research Center, and some studies have found that domestic violence is more common in rural areas. Rural numbers in the studies were estimated to be lower than actual numbers, because of a higher rate of non-reporting.

A key component of the Supreme Court's 6-2 decision to uphold the ban is the difference between the words "reckless" and "intentional," Rachel Louise Snyder reports for The New Yorker. The case involved two men, Stephen Voisine and William Armstrong, who had a history of guns and domestic violence. "The defendants’ lawyer had argued that the men’s conduct toward their domestic partners was not intentional but rather merely 'reckless.' Or, to put it another way, neither man had meant to hurt anyone."

Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan
"Was it unconstitutional to take away a perpetrator’s Second Amendment rights if that perpetrator hadn’t meant to hurt anyone?" Snyder writes. "The Supreme Court’s decision says no, it does not matter. Bad behavior is bad behavior. Justice Elena Kagan wrote the majority opinion, which followed on a 2014 Supreme Court case called Castleman v. United States, in which the Court ruled that any person convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence that involved intentional physical force was barred from possessing a firearm. Castleman left open the question of reckless behavior, which Voisine snapped shut." She wrote, “The question presented here is whether misdemeanor assault convictions for reckless (as contrasted to knowing or intentional) conduct trigger the statutory firearms ban. We hold that they do.”

One of the problems is that "most domestic-violence incidents across the U.S. are charged as misdemeanors, though they are often part of a larger pattern of violence," Snyder writes. "Though most states list non-fatal strangulation as a felony, about a dozen still make it a misdemeanor charge. The burden of proof for victims can be impossibly high given that often there are no witnesses, no corroboration, and sometimes no visible injury at all. (Only 15 per cent of strangulations have evidence visible enough to photograph.)"

"For the National Rifle Association, the issue in the Voisine case was the question of 'recklessness,' and whether that term was too broadly construed," Snyder writes. "Writing at the time the case was heard, the NRA argued that 'an individual who injures a family member while recklessly driving could commit a qualifying domestic violence offense, potentially resulting in a permanent ban on firearm possession." Kagan wrote, “If a person lets slip a door that he is trying to hold open for his girlfriend, he has not actively employed (‘used’) force even though the result is to hurt her. But if he slams the door shut with his girlfriend following close behind, then he has done so—regardless of whether he thinks it absolutely sure or only quite likely that he will catch her fingers in the jamb.”

Snyder writes, "Even the existence of a federal ban on firearm possession for misdemeanors or felonies doesn’t mean that the statutes are enforced—police are often loath to ask abusers about guns, small jurisdictions frequently have no central storehouse, background checks might not turn up domestic-violence charges and judges may not order abusers to relinquish guns." (Read more)

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