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Supreme Court upholds gun ban for domestic violence abusers

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The Supreme Court has upheld the federal law making it a crime for anyone subject to a domestic violence court order to possess a gun. The 8-1 decision was the first big firearms ruling since 2022. That is when the court broke sharply with the way gun laws had previously been evaluated by the courts. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Two years ago, the Supreme Court's conservative supermajority, led by Justice Clarence Thomas, declared for the first time that for a gun law to be constitutional, it had to be analogous to a law that existed at the nation's founding in the late 1700s. But today, over Thomas' lone dissent, the court seemed to draw that line more flexibly.

Writing for the eight-justice court majority, Chief Justice John Roberts said, we have no trouble concluding that the federal law banning firearms for domestic abusers subject to court order is constitutional. Not only does the accused abuser have a right to be heard before there is a court order, he said, but that order is temporary not open-ended.

Roberts said that a gun restriction need not be a dead ringer or a historical twin of gun restrictions that hearken back to the time of the nation's founding. Some courts, he said, have misunderstood the methodology of our recent decisions, adding that those decisions, quote, "were not meant to suggest a law trapped in amber that would only provide protection to muskets and sabers."

ADAM WINKLER: This is a major win for gun safety reform advocates.

TOTENBERG: UCLA law professor Adam Winkler has written extensively about guns and gun rights.

WINKLER: Because of the very imperfect fit between history and tradition of gun laws and this particular prohibition, we're likely to see lower courts use this ruling to justify upholding a wide range of gun laws.

TOTENBERG: But Joseph Blocher, co-director of the Duke Center for Firearms Law, disagrees.

JOSEPH BLOCHER: I think what we got here is a slight revision. This is about the narrowest possible win I think the government could have gotten.

TOTENBERG: And he notes that the case before the court was, by everyone's reckoning, an easy case. The defendant, Zackey Rahimi, assaulted his girlfriend in a parking lot, threatened to shoot her if she told anyone, and fired a gun at a witness.

The girlfriend went to court, and a judge, after finding that Rahimi posed a credible threat of future violence, issued a court order banning him for two years from contact with the girlfriend or her family.

Rahimi not only violated the order by going to the girlfriend's house, he fired a gun in a residential neighborhood, fired at a truck and even fired a gun in the air when a restaurant declined a friend's credit card. When police finally searched his residence, they found a pistol, a rifle and a copy of the restraining order.

Easy case or not, today's ruling involved well over 100 pages of writing, only 18 pages of which were the chief justice's majority opinion. Three of the court's conservatives - Justices Gorsuch, Barrett and Kavanaugh - who joined Roberts' opinion, still spilled over 40 pages of ink explaining their views of originalism, the doctrine that they all adhere to, based on the notion that constitutional questions should be resolved based on the constitution's meaning at the time the nation was founded. Again, Professor Winkler.

WINKLER: This case highlights that even justices claiming to do originalism are products of the generation that they come from. And even though Americans in the 17- and 1800s didn't regularly disarm people who were thought to be dangerous, even the conservative originalist justices recognize that we have to ban dangerous people from possessing firearms today. And so they all jump through hoops to try to say this is still originalism.

TOTENBERG: Just how the court will rule in future cases is unclear. Experts note that there are lots of gun issues headed for the Supreme Court - everything from gun bans for convicted felons to laws banning guns for people with a mental health history, gun bans for 18- to 20-year-olds and bans on certain types of ammunition and weapons, and that just scratches the surface. But for today, one group was thrilled. Here's Melina Milazzo of the National Network to End Domestic Violence.

MELINA MILAZZO: These protection orders exist for a reason because we know for survivors of domestic violence, when a male abuser has access to a firearm, the risk that he will choose to shoot and kill a female intimate partner increases by 1,000%.

TOTENBERG: Nina Totenberg, NPR News. Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF BADBADNOTGOOD AND GHOSTFACE KILLAH SONG, "FOOD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.
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