The Supreme Court said Monday that people convicted of domestic abuse can be prevented from owning a gun, in a case that prompted the first questions from Justice Clarence Thomas in 10 years.
In a 6-to-2 decision, the court said Congress had intended to keep firearms out of the hands of domestic abusers.
The question for the court was whether the prohibition on firearms possession applies to those convicted under state law of misdemeanor domestic abuse and specifically whether assault convictions for “reckless” conduct could trigger the gun ban.
The relatively low-profile case took on greater significance after Thomas broke his decade-long silence during oral arguments in February by asking questions of a government lawyer. Thomas’s questions centered on the reach of the court’s 2008 decision declaring a Second Amendment right to individual gun ownership.
The case was brought by two men, including Stephen Voisine, who was separately being prosecuted for killing a bald eagle. He had a previous conviction for a misdemeanor assault of a woman with whom he had a relationship, and federal prosecutors said that meant he should be banned from owning firerams.
Voisine argued that Maine’s law did not require prosecutors to show that he intentionally used physical force, because the law also covered “reckless” behavior. That, he said, should not be enough grounds to elicit the federal ban.
The court rejected that argument, finding Monday that “a person who assaults another recklessly uses force no less than one who carries out that same action knowingly or intentionally,” according to the majority opinion by Justice Elena Kagan. She was joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer and Samuel A. Alito Jr.
To accept the interpretation of the petitioners, the majority said, would risk striking down similar laws in 34 states and the District and allowing “domestic abusers of all mental states to evade” the firearms ban.
In his dissent, Thomas said such a conviction does not necessarily involve the use of physical force and, therefore, does not set off the firearms ban. The prohibition, he said, can apply only to “intentional acts designed to cause harm.”
Thomas was joined in part in his dissent by Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
Separately, he also strongly objected to the imposition of a lifetime firearms ban on a person convicted of a misdemeanor assault involving reckless conduct.
“This decision leaves the right to keep and bear arms up to the discretion of federal, state and local prosecutors,” Thomas wrote. “We treat no other constitutional right so cavalierly.”
During oral arguments in February, Thomas’s first questions in a decade were directed at Assistant Solicitor General Ilana H. Eisenstein.
“Can you give me – this is a misdemeanor violation. It suspends a constitutional right. Can you give me another area where a misdemeanor violation suspends a constitutional right?”
When Eisenstein stumbled in her response, Thomas again pointed out that the case involves a “misdemeanor violation of domestic conduct that results in a lifetime ban on possession of a gun, which, at least as of now, is still a constitutional right.”
Eisenstein responded that Congress justified the ban because of studies showing that people who previously battered their spouses “pose up to a sixfold greater risk of killing, by a gun, their family member.”
Thomas then asked follow-up questions and pointed out that neither of the men challenging the gun ban, Voisine and William Armstrong, had a weapon in the domestic violence incidents for which they were convicted.
Thomas’s comments came just two weeks after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. Both Thomas and Scalia had upbraided their colleagues for not taking other cases that would clarify the extent of a Second Amendment right to individual gun ownership, which was established in an opinion Scalia wrote in a 2008 case, District of Columbia v. Heller.
The Washington Post’s Robert Barnes contributed to this report.
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