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High court keeps guns away from domestic abusers

Justices uphold broader interpretation of law aimed at people convicted of felony and misdemeanor violence.

February 25, 2009|David G. Savage

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court upheld the broad reach of a federal gun-control law Tuesday and said that no one who has a conviction for any crime of domestic violence may own a firearm.

The 7-2 decision strips gun rights from tens of thousands of people who were convicted or had pleaded guilty to an assault against a spouse, a live-in partner, a child or a parent. These crimes include not just felonies, but misdemeanors.

"Firearms and domestic strife are a potentially deadly combination nationwide," Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said.

Gun-control advocates and law enforcement officials praised the ruling. On average, more than three people are killed each day by domestic partners, according to the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. About 14% of police officers who are killed in the line of duty die in response to a domestic violence call, the group said.

Since 1996, federal authorities have turned down more than 175,000 prospective gun buyers because of domestic violence charges, according to the Brady Center. Most of them could have had their rights restored had the court ruled the other way.

Tuesday's ruling did not involve the 2nd Amendment and its right "to keep and bear arms." Last year, the high court ruled that law-abiding citizens had a constitutional right to have a gun at home for self-defense, but it said felons could be denied gun rights.

In 1968, Congress made it illegal for felons to own a gun in the United States. Lawmakers in 1996 extended this ban to include those convicted of "a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence."

Until Tuesday, however, it had been unclear who is covered by this provision. Only about half the states have laws that make domestic violence a crime. Across the nation, prosecutors often charge offenders with an assault or battery.

Two years ago, the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the federal gun ban did not extend to state charges involving assault or battery. Randy Hayes, a West Virginia man, had challenged the federal law after he was convicted of illegal gun possession. He was found with three guns in his house in 2004. Ten years earlier, he had pleaded guilty to misdemeanor battery against his then-wife.

Ruling for Hayes, the appeals court said this "generic battery" conviction did not count as a "misdemeanor crime of domestic violence," and it freed him from the federal charges.

The Supreme Court overturned that ruling Tuesday in United States vs. Hayes and restored the broad view of the federal law. Ginsburg's opinion said the ban on gun ownership extends to any person who has been convicted of any crime involving "physical force or the threatened use of a deadly weapon," so long as there was a "domestic relationship" between the perpetrator and the victim.

Congress sought to keep "firearms out of the hands of domestic abusers," she said, but the law would be a "dead letter" in much of the nation if it were read as narrowly as Hayes sought.

Only Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Antonin Scalia dissented. They focused on the precise words of the law and said it should be applied narrowly.

Meanwhile on Tuesday, the court dealt a setback to public employee unions in states such as Idaho and Utah. In a 6-3 ruling, it said these states may forbid agencies from collecting union political dues from employees.

These laws are rare, but the court said they do not violate the 1st Amendment rights of the unions.

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david.savage@latimes.com

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