Should Domestic Abusers Have Guns? US Supreme Court Will Decide in United States V Rahimi

27

The US Supreme Court has heard arguments in one of the most important gun cases to come before it in decades.

At stake before the nation’s highest court on Tuesday was the question of whether people placed under domestic abuse retraining orders ought to be restricted from owning firearms.

At the centre of the case is Zackey Rahimi, who is far from a sympathetic antihero.

A small-time drug dealer according to the government’s submission, he has a list of firearms convictions that include several shootings.

In one unusual incident at a crowded fast-food restaurant he fired into the air after his friend’s credit card was declined.

Rahimi’s name appeared in a case that will test just how far a new conservative majority in the Supreme Court will push the idea of gun rights.

Because before the litany of firearms offences that ultimately ended with his incarceration, Rahimi found himself subject to a domestic violence restraining order after an incident in 2019.

He attacked his partner in a car park, after telling her he wanted to take away their child, and dragged her into a vehicle before threatening her with a gun.

When he noticed a bystander had witnessed the attack, Rahimi grabbed a firearm from his car and opened fire.

His partner, who remains unnamed in court documents, obtained a restraining order against him.

Under a 1994 federal law, those subject to such restrictions are prohibited from owning firearms.

So, when police later raided Rahimi’s home in connection with shootings he was suspected of involvement in, and found a rifle and pistol, a federal jury indicted him.

Under another Supreme Court, that might have been the end of the story.

Rahimi would have remained another unknown criminal confined to a prison in Texas after his initial appeal was rejected.

But last year, the court significantly expanded gun rights.

In New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v Bruen the justices ruled that the government must point to “historical tradition” when defending laws relating to the Second Amendment of the US Constitution, which guarantees Americans the right to bear arms.

That decision, and its reliance on historical customs, has been criticised in some lower courts. The Mississippi Supreme Court complained earlier this year that judges are “not trained as historians”.

Nonetheless, the ruling opened a new avenue of appeal for Rahimi.

Earlier this year, the conservative 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in Louisiana ruled that the law prohibiting Rahimi from owning a gun was unconstitutional – prompting an appeal from President Joe Biden’s administration.

United States v Rahimi presents a litmus test for the Supreme Court’s conservative majority on what limitations, if any, should be imposed on gun rights.

The Biden administration – represented by Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar – has emphasised the increased risk to women in abusive relationships when firearms are present.

Presenting the case on Tuesday, Ms Prelogar told a packed courtroom that women living in a home with an armed domestic abuser are five times more likely to be murdered.

And she reminded the justices of the court’s 2014 verdict in United States v Castleman, where it said “the only difference between a battered woman and a dead woman is the presence of a gun”.

Rahimi’s lawyer, James Matthew Wright, argued that preventing those with domestic abuse restraining orders from owning guns would almost immediately become a “complete proxy for a denial of a constitutional right”.

But most of the morning’s arguments turned on the court’s understanding of historical precedent. Ms Prelogar said New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v Bruen had been “destabilising” for lower courts trying to apply it.

She noted that “dangerous” individuals, such as loyalists to Britain in the American Revolutionary War era, had been disarmed.

But Mr Wright told the court he could find no historical precedent for people being disarmed, save those convicted of a felony – which does not include the subjects of restraining orders.

When his arguments sometimes slipped away from Second Amendment issues and into questions of due process, however, they met scepticism from some justices.

“I’m so confused!” Justice Amy Coney Barrett, a conservative, said at one point, to laughter from the courtroom.

Justice Elena Kagan, a liberal, suggested to Mr Wright that he appeared to be “running away from your argument, because the implications of your argument are just so untenable”.

And Justice Brett Kavanaugh, another conservative, pondered to Mr Wright whether it was “possible the government is correct” in its submission.

Mr Wright persevered, arguing that in many states restraining orders can be permanent.

Rahimi’s appeal, if successful, could have far-reaching implications.

Mark Tushnet, a law professor at Harvard University, told the BBC a host of other restrictions – such as the one prohibiting non-violent offenders from owning a firearm – could also be challenged.

“If the court upholds Rahimi’s claim, it would be on the basis of an approach to constitutional interpretation that looks for quite precise parallels between gun regulations as they existed in the late 18th Century and as they have developed in modern times,” he said.

“It’s quite likely that no such parallels would be found for a great many current gun regulations, and that the overall system of gun regulation in the United States would become substantially more receptive to widespread ownership of guns.”

Gun rights activists – while accepting Rahimi is far from the ideal poster boy – hope to see another expansion of the right to bear arms.

The National Rifle Association has argued that the bar for restraining orders is too low to remove a constitutional right.

“The Government desires the power to disarm untold thousands of Americans subject to civil protective orders, which are based on all manner of marital or relational discord,” the gun lobby group argued in its filing.

Outside the Supreme Court on Tuesday, dozens of protesters decried the case.

“If I die from domestic violence throw my body on the steps of the Supreme Court,” one of their placards said.

Source: BBC