Supreme Court Will Decide on Re-Arming Domestic Abusers

4310717_448b7f6f11For a domestic violence victim, whether her partner owns a gun can be the difference between life and death.

One in four women in the United States experiences domestic violence in her lifetime, and these women are five times more likely [PDF] to be murdered when their intimate partners own a firearm. Putting a gun in the hands of an abuser is not only irresponsible; it literally risks the lives of countless women across the nation.

Given the dual epidemics of gun violence and violence against women in this country, we should be working to strengthen laws that prevent convicted criminals from accessing deadly firearms. Yesterday, however, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in United States v. Castleman, a case that could limit the effectiveness of the federal gun ban and place domestic violence victims further at risk.

In 1996, Congress passed the Domestic Violence Offender Gun Ban—also known as the Lautenberg Amendment after its chief sponsor and advocate, the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ)—to prohibt any individual convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence from owning a gun. A host of women’s rights groups, including the Feminist Majority, the National Network to End Domestic Violence (then led by current Rep. Donna Edwards [D-Md.]), and the National Organization for Women, fought hard for the law, originally facing opposition from law enforcement and military groups who feared the ban would force out officers by prohibiting those convicted of domestic violence crimes from possessing guns.

The purpose of the law, however, was, as Sen. Lautenberg reminded his colleagues on the Senate floor, to “save the life of the ordinary American woman.”

The Senator was not engaging in hyperbole. Several studies have shown that gun ownership increases the likelihood that a woman will be killed during a domestic violence incident, and the risk of death is higher when there has already been a previous incident of domestic violence. The Domestic Violence Offender Gun Ban is a simple, common-sense measure that helps protect women from being murdered.

At issue in Castleman, however, is when the gun ban should apply to those who perpetrate domestic violence. The federal law specifies that the gun ban applies to anyone who has been convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence under federal, state or tribal law when the crime includes “the use or attempted use of physical force, or the threatened use of a deadly weapon.” The question before the Court now is what counts as “physical force.”

In 2001, James Castleman pled guilty in Tennessee state court to “intentionally or knowingly caus[ing] bodily injury” to the mother of his child, a misdemeanor domestic assault. When Castleman was later arrested for selling firearms on the black market, he argued that he could not be charged with violating the gun ban because he had not specifically pled guilty to use of physical force. Amazingly, the lower courts agreed.

But this case isn’t just about James Castleman. If the Supreme Court upholds the lower courts’ interpretation of the gun ban, it will immensely cripple the law and the protection it affords.

Here’s why:

The term “domestic violence” includes many offensive acts intended to exert power and control over the victim. These acts usually form a pattern of abusive behavior that escalates in frequency and severity over time. We know that what starts out as pushing, grabbing, spitting, or shoving will too often turn into more aggressive violence and that access to guns increases the likelihood of fatality. Most domestic violence cases are prosecuted under state misdemeanor assault and battery laws, and depending on the state these laws criminalize intentional offensive touching, intentional causation of bodily injury or both [PDF].

But if the Supreme Court sides with Castleman, none of the abusers convicted under these laws—representing the majority of domestic violence cases—would be subject to the gun ban if their convictions did not specifically mention “physical force.”  This result would be at odds with the intent of the law, and certainly at odds with the reality of domestic violence and its prosecution.

There is no reason to wait for an abuser to exhibit “strong and violent force,” as the lower courts would have us do, before we prevent that abuser from owning a firearm. The risk is too great. When it comes to protecting domestic violence victims, the Court needn’t create or uphold barriers that do not appear in the federal statute banning abusers from owning guns.

“In a country where three women are already murdered every day through domestic violence, it would be tragic beyond measure to re-arm thousands of abusers,” says Kim Gandy, NNEDV president and CEO of the National Network to End Domestic Violence.

The combination of guns and domestic violence is often fatal. More than 60 percent [PDF] of women homicide victims are killed by an intimate partner, and more homicides of women are committed with firearms than with any other type of weapon. Now is certainly not the time to undermine laws that help save women’s lives.

Photo from Flickr user Gideon Tsang under license from Creative Commons 2.0


Burroughs HeadshotGaylynn Burroughs is the director of policy & research at the Feminist Majority Foundation.



  1. It seems so obvious that guns should be kept out of the hands of domestic abusers that if the Court rules in favor of guns, I would really like to see a discussion on why. If it were Congress voting, I could imagine the gun lobby having an affect. But if the Supreme Court rules in favor of guns and against women’s lives, I don’t get it.

  2. Charles Huckelbury says:

    This reeks of the defense of waterboarding. Torture was described as only those acts that elevate pain to the level experienced by organ failure or death. Everything else (slapping, sleep deprivation, forced nudity, etc.) was permitted. Now the Tennessee court would have us believe that only “strong and violent force” would disqualify an abuser from owning a gun. Any force that falls outside of that strict definition would not. New flash: force is formerly defined as anything that causes an object to undergo a change, either in position or structure. In this case, the object would be the victim of the abuse, and the change could be anything that compels an alteration in the victim’s previous state. It’s really not that hard–unless the flat earth society is still recruiting members. Force remains coercive and doesn’t require adjectives to make it illegal. You abuse your partner, you lose your gun. Duh.

  3. This was a very well written, and we’ll reasoned article arguing against the affirmation of the lower court. Could you present an amicus brief to the court, and maybe put it up on for citizen signatures in favor of your position. Perhaps this can influence members of the court that can still be swayed?

    • Faryl Palles says:

      I think Maryam’s suggestion is excellent and important although, again, I am completely cynical about it having any sway with SCOTUS. However, to the extent possible, I support filing amicus briefs, with signatures, for every case that could harm women. But where are the studies that show making gun ownership illegal for domestic violence perpetrators reduces femicide? Did I miss something? Domestic violence is, IMO, a complex web of culture and psychopathology, a very hard nut to crack unless you start training boys at grade school level. Even then, there are going to be charming perpetrators, naïve women and places to get a gun, no questions asked. So maybe we should start training girls in grade school? Is this a painful reality or what? But yes, I think it’s a reality. If as a country we thought it necessary to train kids in grade school to get under their desks in the case of a nuclear bomb threat, we can train them in all the ways known to reduce violence and recognize behaviors that raise red flags. If I were Queen of the Universe, I would have feminists get curricula into grade schools, pronto. That would be, for me, the most effective way to begin to dismantle patriarchy. These kinds of programs exist in the U.S., but are offered by non-profits, extracurricularly. I rarely hear mainstream feminists strategize around this kind of activism. Or maybe I missed it?

      • Michele Miller says:

        Nelson Mandela said that if women ran the world there would be no wars. The same goes for domestic violence, which has its roots in centuries of women being considered inferior and so men made laws that said women and children were the husband and father’s property; with no rights and no or little protection from whatever violence they dished out. Since men have always been the ones in charge of making laws, our laws have always been pro-male and anti female. or indeed, anything feminine. So I totally agree we need to teach children anti-harassment/bullying starting in elementary schools. As a school social worker I did this in every class once a month or more every year. It emphasizes that no one has the right to hurt, pressure or control anyone else.
        But until this becomes a society norm, in about 2 decades, give or take, we have to stop this outrageously misogynistic law in it’s tracks. It’s a slap in the face and a minimization of the value of a woman’s life that the male-dominated Supreme Court is even considering making it easier for men who have committed DV to severely harm or kill women and/or children more easily. For about 3 years I led an anger management/domestic violence perpetrators. It’s about using verbal and/or physical abuse to force their wives, ex-wives, girlfriends, children, etc., to stay with them, so they have people to blame things on when things go wrong, take out their stress on, control so they feel powerful, etc.
        The more things we can do to decrease the likelihood that men with a history of violence have access to guns the better. We also have a lot of work to do to increase how seriously the legal system and law enforcement take domestic violence. The system is so slow and mainly ineffective in protecting DV victims, even if there’s a protective order in place. Which leaves victims so vulnerable because there is no predictable escalation in DV (or child abuse). It can go from threats about what he’ll do if ….(fill in the blanks) or a few bruises to murder. I feel sick to my stomach every time I hear about another man murdering his wife/ex-wife and children. Because of this and because I believe in our right to defend ourselves, I agree with the sentiments expressed in Nickelback’s “Never Again”, and Martina McBride’s “Independence Day”.

    • Charles Huckelbury says:

      I’m in the process of doing just that, Maryam. I still think the court will strike down the Tennessee ruling, but on an issue as important as this one, all of us are obligated to work as hard as we can in whatever fashion to assure that outcome. A recent study by a group at the University of California, San Francisco,concluded that the presence of guns in the home doubled the risk of homicide (published in the Annals of Internal Medicine). It’s a no-brainer, but again, we have to marshal every resource.

    • Michele Miller says:

      Another reason it’s ridiculous the Supreme Court agreed to hear this guy’s appeal because he couldn’t have caused ‘bodily injury’ without using ‘physical force’!

  4. Sandra Barron-Perrault says:

    The thought of putting guns back into the hands of domestic violence offenders just terrifies me to death. Don’t cause anymore innocent women die, keep guns out of the hands of domestic violence offenders. The law is supposed to protect people, not kill them.

  5. Ginger Young says:

    If a female domestic violence victim want a weapon to protect herself, she should be able to have it.

    • Charles Huckelbury says:

      Agreed, but in Florida, a woman picked up a gun to defend herself from her abuser and fired a warning shot. No one was injured, but the woman was sentenced to prison for the shot. I guess it’s only men who get to “stand their ground” and discharge their weapons at someone else.

      • Michele Miller says:

        Which again shows whose lives we value most. In the 80’s Dept. of Justice statistics showed that women who killed their husbands – most often battered women – got prison sentences double that of men who killed their wives (out of possessiveness, jealousy and domestic violence). It also said that thousands of boys who killed their fathers defending their mother from domestic violence were sent to prison for murder! Nope, our country still is a man’s world and clearly values men more than women and children. Because the cops, lawyers and judges clearly identify with the male perps.

  6. Louise O'Bryan says:

    This is beyond deplorable. Thank you, Gaylynn for all your fine work. I do have a bone to pick, however, with certain phraseology. “James Castleman pled guilty … to caus[ing] bodily injury” to the mother of HIS child.” The child is not his, it is THEIR(‘s). It really bugs me when Feminists assigns “sole ownership” and propagation to a sperm.

  7. What is wrong with these people?

  8. Jackie De Hon, Ph.D. says:

    First, although your screen background is pretty, I found this article extremely hard to read. If I had not REALLY cared about this matter, I would have skipped it!

    Second, if the Supreme Court allows such an unfair practice–allowing abusers to own and use guns–it should also include a free-pass for women and/or their champions to kill their abusers in self defense. I think the SC would be opening a can of worms that it would never be able to contain!

  9. It is totally foolhardy to allow men who have demonstrated they have violent natures own guns. In fact there’s way too much gun culture in this country as it is.

  10. Lauren Donna Graham says:

    Over the last couple of years, the Supreme Court has simply gone insane. As long as Thomas, Roberts and Scalia are members it is a case of the inmates running the asylum. These three are women’s worst enemies.

  11. Melda Page says:

    This ploy is a deliberate scam by defense attorneys trying to keep the offenders from facing the penalties for their offenses. All the more reason for women to arm themselves and learn to use violence in self-defense.

  12. Petitions with the links against this should be listed or added to article to sign.

  13. Putting a gun in the hands of a person who can’t control their temper makes NO sense at all.
    Would you throw a lighted match into a flammable liquid? We need to protect the lives of our daughters and grandchildren.

  14. What can we do to prevent this change in gun laws from happening. If someone would start a petition on CREDO, that would be great.

  15. I am very much for gun rights including civilian machine guns, tanks and heavy artillery more powerful than any government owned arms. Civilians must disarm governments before governments can disarm civilians because civilians are more trustworthy than governments with arms. However I think I agree with this. The second amendment does not apply to anyone convicted of assault or battery on a fellow civilian.
    My only issue is WHO has the right to disarm domestic abusers? Other civilians have such a right, but that does not give government or it’s agents any such right. The right to disarm abusers is exclusively civilian and cannot be delegated to government or government agents, who cannot be trusted to do thse things properly, fairly or in a manner that protects or empowers women.

  16. Faryl Palles says:

    Although I think that anyone can get a gun illegally these days, I find it alarming that the law cited in the Castleman decision reflects ignorance about the progression of intimate partner violence from seemingly “unintentional” control to physical force to murder. OTOH, why should I even be surprised? Patriarchy is still normative.

  17. Common Sense says:

    I agree with the intent of the law but certain aspects of it need to be changed. As of right now a young person with no prior history of violence could have a horrible argument with their spouse and maybe out of stress and emotions grab their spouse by the wrist and beg them not to leave for example and the police arrive, that young person will now never be able to go hunting, sports shooting, serve in the military, or be around anyone with a gun for the rest of their life. I think it would be more agreeable and make more since to put a 2, 5, or even 10 year ban but a life time ban for a valid misdemeanor is not appropriate. All the points made in the law leaned towards emotional killings. It’s my opinion that this law encompasses to many good people that made a mistake.

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