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The Supreme Court Just Ruled That Domestic Abusers Can Lose Their Rights to Gun Ownership

The Supreme Court Just Ruled That Domestic Abusers Can Lose Their Rights to Gun Ownership

By Maggie Mallon

In addition to the landmark reproductive rights decision that overruled a Texas law that would have shuttered most of the state's abortion clinics, the Supreme Court delivered another major victory for women's rights on Monday. In a 6-2 vote, the court ruled that any individual convicted of domestic abuse should be barred from owning or purchasing a gun under federal law — which could go a long way toward strengthening measures to stop gun violence.

The case — Voisine v. United States — was brought on by Maine residents Stephen Voisine and William Armstrong who, after being convicted of misdemeanor assault, lost their rights to legally own or purchase weapons. A federal law prohibits convicted abusers from purchasing or possessing guns. However, after being sentenced, both Voisine and Armstrong violated the terms of their conviction and continued to possess guns and ammo as if the federal ban did not apply to them. The two men, who both pleaded guilty to assault charges, contended that they should not be kept from owning guns — because their charges were "reckless conduct" instead of intentional acts of abuse. Translation: they assaulted their partners in the heat of an argument rather than through a premeditated attack.

The court, however, rejected their argument.

"Congress's definition of a 'misdemeanor crime of violence' contains no exclusion for convictions based on reckless behavior," wrote Justice Elena Kagan in the majority opinion. "A person who assaults another recklessly 'use[s]' force, no less than one who carries out that same action knowingly or intentionally."

Kagan was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Anthony Kennedy, Stephen Breyer, and Samuel Alito, as well as Chief Justice John Roberts, in the majority decision. Justice Clarence Thomas — who made headlines when he asked a question for the first time in 10 years during the Voisine oral arguments in February — dissented from the majority rule and Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented in part.

The link between domestic abuse and gun violence, particularly when it comes to women's safety, is striking. Women in the United States are 11 times more likely to be killed by guns than women in other high-income nations and the presence of a gun in a household afflicted by domestic violence increases the risk of homicide by 500 percent. In ruling that any misdemeanor act of domestic violence, whether "reckless" or "intentional," qualifies an individual for the federal gun ban, the court recognized the need for better legal measures to prevent convicted abusers from accessing deadly weapons.

"The Supreme Court today affirmed what we know — domestic violence escalates and is often deadly," said National Network to End Domestic Violence President and CEO Kim Gandy in a statement. "Ensuring that convicted abusers do not have access to firearms will save lives."

Monday's decision comes at a time when public support for increased gun control continues to grow and individual states are taking bigger steps to curb gun violence. As it stands currently, 18 states have passed legislation to strengthen gun laws and prevent weapons from being obtained by convicted domestic abusers, as well as requiring those convicted of domestic violence to relinquish any weapons they already have. As the debate over gun control continues on, it's likely to become a contentious issue leading up to the presidential election in November.

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Photo Credit: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images