US Supreme Court weighs whether abusers have right to own guns

The US Supreme Court is weighing the Second Amendment right to bear arms against a law designed to protect victims of domestic abuse (Stefani Reynolds)
The US Supreme Court is weighing the Second Amendment right to bear arms against a law designed to protect victims of domestic abuse (Stefani Reynolds)

The US Supreme Court appeared inclined on Tuesday to uphold a federal law prohibiting a person subject to a domestic violence restraining order from possessing a firearm.

The case is the first involving gun rights to come before the court, where conservatives hold a 6-3 majority, since a major ruling it issued last year loosening gun restrictions.

In that decision, the nation's highest court said it would authorize only "reasonable" exceptions to the Second Amendment right to bear arms and would rely on historical precedents when it comes to regulating firearms.

The ruling has left lower courts struggling to determine whether gun restrictions before them are consistent with "the history and traditions" of firearms regulation in the United States in the late 18th to the 19th century.

On the basis of that decision, an ultraconservative appeals court ruled in March that a federal law banning gun ownership by people with domestic violence restraining orders was unconstitutional, for lack of historical precedent.

Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar, making the case for upholding the federal law for the Biden administration, appeared to find a receptive audience from both conservative and liberal justices to her arguments.

"A woman who lives in a house with a domestic abuser is five times more likely to be murdered if he has access to a gun," Prelogar said at a court session held just two weeks after a gunman in Maine shot dead 18 people.

"Congress may disarm those who are not law-abiding, responsible citizens," she said. "Throughout our nation's history, legislatures have disarmed those who have committed serious criminal conduct or whose access to guns poses a danger."

She cited minors, individuals with mental illness, felons and drug addicts as among those prohibited from possessing firearms.

- 'Dangerous person' -

In the case before the court, police recovered a handgun and a rifle during a search of the Texas home of Zackey Rahimi, who had been implicated in five shootings in two months and was subject to a protective order on behalf of a former girlfriend which prohibited him from owning weapons.

Rahimi's attorney, Matthew Wright, a Texas public defender, argued that there was no historical precedent for depriving his client of firearms without there being an actual conviction for a crime.

"The historical record has not been built in this case," Wright said. "We do not contend that his behavior is protected by the Second Amendment, the behavior that's protected is the keeping of arms."

Justice Elena Kagan, a liberal, said the lack of a historical parallel was understandable since "200 some years ago the problem of domestic violence was conceived very differently.

"People had a different understanding of the harm," Kagan said. "People had a different understanding of the right of government to try to prevent the harm.

"It's so obvious that people who have guns pose a great danger to others and you don't give guns to people who have the kind of history of domestic violence that your client has or to the mentally ill," Kagan added.

Chief Justice John Roberts, a conservative, forced Wright to concede that Rahimi, his client, is a "dangerous person."

"I would want to know what 'dangerous person' means?" Wright asked.

"Well, it means someone who's shooting, you know, at people," Roberts said. "That's a good start."

At another point, Roberts told Wright he appeared to be agreeing there are "circumstances where someone could be shown to be sufficiently dangerous that the firearm can be taken from him."

"Why isn't that the end of the case?" the chief justice asked.

Some 100 gun control activists, including the actress Julianne Moore, carrying signs reading "Disarm Domestic Abusers" staged a demonstration outside the Supreme Court as the justices heard about 90 minutes of oral arguments in the case.

The court is expected to issue its ruling next year.