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Supreme Court upholds law barring domestic abusers from owning guns in major Second Amendment ruling

Mark Schiefelbein/AP via CNN Newsource

Originally Published: 21 JUN 24 10:25 ET

Updated: 21 JUN 24 11:26 ET

By John Fritze, CNN

(CNN) — The Supreme Court upheld a federal law Friday that bars guns for domestic abusers, rejecting an argument pressed by gun rights groups that the prohibition violated the Second Amendment.

The 8-1 decision lands as the nation continues to grapple with gun violence and mass shootings. A roiling political debate over firearms has left Washington unable to pass new gun laws. State and federal prohibitions that have been on the books for years, meanwhile, have increasingly faced scrutiny from courts.

The decision could help shore up similar federal gun regulations that have been challenged since the Supreme Court vastly expanded gun rights in 2022. That ruling caused substantial confusion for lower court judges reviewing Second Amendment lawsuits.

Chief Justice John Roberts, in the majority opinion, responded to the idea that the high court’s previous decisions have locked judges into specific laws that were on the books at the time of the Second Amendment’s enactment, Roberts said that some lower courts have “misunderstood the methodology of our recent Second Amendment cases.”

“Our tradition of firearm regulation allows the government to disarm individuals who present a credible threat to the physical safety of others,” Roberts wrote.

“The Court’s ruling today leaves intact a specific federal criminal prohibition on gun possession by those subject to domestic violence-related restraining orders,” said Steve Vladeck, CNN Supreme Court analyst and professor at the University of Texas School of Law. “But there are dozens of other federal and state gun regulations that have been challenged since the court’s 2022 ruling in the Bruen case. The harder cases, like whether Congress can prohibit all felons, or all drug offenders, from possessing firearms, are still to come.”

Justice Clarence Thomas, who wrote the 2022 in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen opinion, filed a lone dissent.

“The Court and Government do not point to a single historical law revoking a citizen’s Second Amendment right based on possible interpersonal violence,” Thomas wrote. “Yet, in the interest of ensuring the Government can regulate one subset of society, today’s decision puts at risk the Second Amendment rights of many more.”

Challenge from Texas man arrested after series of shootings

At issue is a 1994 law that bars people who are the subject of domestic violence restraining orders from possessing guns. A Texas man, Zackey Rahimi, was convicted for violating that law following a series of shootings, including one in which police said he fired into the air at a Whataburger restaurant after a friend’s credit card was declined.

Rahimi’s lawyers claimed that the Supreme Court’s blockbuster decision two years ago meant that the law on domestic violence orders could not be squared with the Constitution. A 6-3 majority in Bruen, in the opinion by Thomas, ruled that gun regulations must be “consistent with this nation’s historical tradition of firearm regulation.”

The defense attorneys argued that the founding generation never responded to domestic violence by banning the possession of weapons and, because of that, the government couldn’t do so now. The New Orleans-based 5th US Circuit Court of Appeals embraced that argument, concluding that a gun ban for people involved in domestic disputes was an “outlier that our ancestors would never have accepted.”

But the Biden administration and domestic violence victims groups noted there were founding-era laws that prohibited dangerous Americans from possessing guns. In other words, they said, when viewed more generally, there were laws that could meet the court’s new history-based test.

Women who are subject to domestic abuse are five times more likely to die at the hands of their abuser if there is a gun in the home, victims groups told the Supreme Court.

During oral arguments in November, a majority of the court appeared poised to uphold the law – but several conservative justices had signaled they might be willing to do so only on narrow grounds. That may be in part because a series of related legal challenges are already queued up for the court, including a question of whether non-violent felons can be denied access to firearms.

One of the prohibitions in question has ties to President Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, who was convicted on June 11 of violating a law that bars possession of a gun by a person who is an “unlawful user of or addicted to any controlled substance.” Biden is expected to appeal.

The 5th Circuit last year, in a separate case, ruled that the prohibition on drug users is unconstitutional.

Alito absent from bench again

Justice Samuel Alito was not present for a second day in row as the justices handed down opinions in the Supreme Court’s courtroom.

The court has not responded to questions about his absence.

This story is breaking and will be updated.

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