A Little-Discussed But Important Gun Control Win From the U.S. Supreme Court – posted 9/4/2016
In recent years, gun control advocates have had precious little to cheer about. Victories have been exceedingly rare.
So it is important to acknowledge a real win when it happens. Back in June, at the end of the U.S. Supreme Court’s term, the Court issued a decision which limited domestic violence abusers’ access to guns.
In the case of Voisine v U.S., the Court held that misdemeanor assault convictions for reckless conduct do trigger the ban on abusers’ owning or possessing firearms. The Court ruled on the case on the same day it delivered a big abortion rights decision. As a result, Voisine got buried in the news and the case did not receive the publicity it deserved.
The facts of the Voisine case demonstrate its significance as this is a domestic violence situation that has been and will be replayed many times. In 2004 Stephen Voisine, a logger from Maine, pled guilty to assaulting his girl friend and violating a restraining order. This was a misdemeanor domestic violence conviction. A few years later, Voisine got into trouble again by shooting and killing a baby bald eagle. That is also a crime as bald eagles are protected under federal law.
When law enforcement officers investigated the killing of the bald eagle, they found out that Voisine owned a rifle. A background check turned up the prior misdemeanor conviction. The Government then charged Voisine under federal law.
There was also a second defendant in Voisine’s case when it reached the Supreme Court as the cases were consolidated. William Armstrong, also from Maine, had pled guilty in 2002 and 2008 to beating his wife. A few years back, law enforcement searched Armstrong’s home as part of a narcotics investigation. They found six guns plus a large quantity of ammunition. The Government also charged Armstrong under federal law.
Under a 1996 amendment to the federal Gun Control Act, anyone convicted of a misdemeanor domestic violence offense is barred from owning forearms. The ban is lifetime. Of course, the existence of a federal ban on firearm possession for misdemeanors does not mean that law will necessarily be enforced.
Voisine and Armstrong both challenged their convictions. They argued that they were not subject to the federal law because their crimes were reckless – not intentional. Essentially they were saying that they never meant to hurt their intimate partners.
The Supreme Court did not buy that argument. By a 6-2 vote, the Court, in an opinion from Justice Kagan, upheld Voisine and Armstrong’s convictions.
On its face, the idea that the defendants in this case did not commit intentional acts seems very weak. Although they were charged with reckless conduct, was it mere accident they beat up their partners? Supposedly they lost it so much that their violence was unintended. Such an argument does not square with what we know about domestic violence.
Domestic violence is almost never a one-off incident. The pattern typically includes long-term psychological, sexual and physical abuse. I believe abusers usually act deliberately not by accident or by losing control. For the abuser it is about power and control. The abuser gets pleasure out of feeling he rules.
The idea that domestic violence is reckless, not intentional, misses the context in which the abuse occurs. If the pattern is long-standing, defining a beating as “reckless” wrongly sees that episode as an aberration.
Abusers specialize in denying personal responsibility for their bad acts. The argument that abuse was reckless not intentional fits perfectly into abusers’ common game plan. It is never their fault.
Interestingly, only one group filed an amicus brief at the Supreme Court on the side of Voisine and Armstrong. That group was the Gun Owners of America. They did not think a misdemeanor conviction for domestic violence was a sufficient ground to deprive an American citizen of the right to possess a gun. That was also the position argued by Justice Thomas in his dissenting opinion.
The term “misdemeanor” can be misleading. In a New Yorker piece, Rachel Louise Snyder explains:
“To many ears, a misdemeanor, reckless or intentional, sounds like no big deal. But it’s important to point out that when it comes to domestic violence, the seriousness of misdemeanors is markedly downplayed. Most domestic violence incidents across the United States are charged as misdemeanors, though they are often part of a larger pattern of violence.”
Snyder goes on to show that very serious crimes can be charged as misdemeanors. She uses the example of non-fatal strangulation. In 12 states, this is a misdemeanor charge, not a felony. Unfortunately, somewhat misleading legal language can, in effect, play into an abuser’s hand because the term “misdemeanor” could be construed as something minor.
The statistics about guns and domestic violence remain sobering. For at least the past 25 years, more intimate partner homicides have been committed with guns than with all other weapons combined. Statistics also show that women are more likely to be killed by an intimate partner than by any other offender group. When a gun is present in a domestic violence situation, the risk of homicide skyrockets.
Voisine points to the need for an improved background check system. We should not be making it easy for prohibited batterers to have access to guns. Background checks should be required for sales from all private gun sellers. The domestic violence example highlights this need possibly more than any scenario.
Guns and domestic violence are a lethal mix. In my earlier life when I did some representation of domestic violence victims, I saw how just the presence of guns in a household could act as a visible threat and source of intimidation. Guns and their showing are used to keep the woman in line and under subjugation.
The Supreme Court’s decision in Voisine offers some much needed protection for domestic violence victims.