In a major ruling issued by the U.S. Supreme Court on June 27, 2016, the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms took a serious blow in a case that was argued before the Court last February.
In its decision, the Supreme Court ruled gun ownership rights can be denied to people who commit reckless acts of domestic violence. It was enough to rouse the normally quiet Judge Clarence Thomas to speak during the oral arguments for the first time in over a decade.
In a 6-2 decision, the high court ruled that reckless domestic assaults can be considered misdemeanor crimes to restrict gun ownership.
The justices rejected arguments that the law covers only intentional acts of abuse and not those committed in the heat of an argument.
The 12-page opinion, authored by Justice Elena Kagan and endorsed by conservative as well as liberal justices, upheld the sentences imposed on two Maine men who had argued their misdemeanor convictions for domestic abuse should not trigger a federal gun control statute.
Thomas and Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented.
The federal law was intended to deny guns to people convicted of violent acts against family members, based in part on research showing they are more likely to use guns domestically in the future.
Stephen Voisine pleaded guilty to domestic assault in 2004. Five years later, federal authorities found him in possession of a gun after an anonymous tip that he had shot a bald eagle. William Armstrong pleaded guilty to a similar assault charge in 2008 and was found to own guns two years later. Both had pleaded guilty in state court to misdemeanor assault charges after slapping or shoving their romantic partners.
Both men contested their convictions under the federal gun statute, arguing that the weapons ban should not apply to them because their misdemeanor cases were for “reckless conduct” rather than intentional abuse.
Their appeal had been rejected by the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, but the plaintiffs carried it on to the Supreme Court
Attorneys for Voisine and Armstrong presented separate arguments to the Supreme Court: one stating that only a conviction for an intentional domestic assault offense should count for the federal gun prohibition, while the other argued that the ban violates their constitutional right to bear arms.
They argued that the state law allowed for their convictions based on recklessness, rather than only criminal intent. They said the federal law denying guns to domestic abusers wasn’t intended to apply to reckless behavior.
The justices disagreed — but Thomas, whose questions from the bench during oral argument in February were his first in a decade, questioned whether being convicted of a misdemeanor violation “suspends a constitutional right,” the result of which was a denial of a Second Amendment right.
“We treat no other constitutional right so cavalierly,” he said in his dissent. “In construing the statute before us expansively so that causing a single minor reckless injury or offensive touching can lead someone to lose his right to bear arms forever, the court continues to relegate the Second Amendment to a second-class right.”
Thomas’ objections during oral argument prompted a give-and-take in which he asked nine questions. Like Justice Antonin Scalia, who died in February, Thomas has been a fierce defender of gun rights.
Thomas had deep concerns about misdemeanor violations permanently stripping people of their gun rights.
The justice reiterated those concerns in a 19-page dissent issued along with the majority opinion.
Similar domestic abuse laws are now on the books in 34 states and the District of Columbia, triggering the federal weapons ban. But if the Supreme Court had ruled the other way today, that ban would no longer have applied in such cases.
Where the Supreme Court is headed on gun control and the Second Amendment is anyone’s guess at this point.