On Monday, along with its landmark decision in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, the Supreme Court issued a decision in Voisine et al. v. United States that will help strip individuals who commit acts of domestic violence of their gun rights. The ruling is undoubtedly a step toward combatting violence against women—but the case also reveals existing loopholes in our gun legislation and underscores the need for additional action if we are to protect individuals of all races, sexes, and genders from domestic abuse and gun violence.
The case concerned two petitioners, Stephen Voisine and William Armstrong. The two Maine residents both previously pleaded guilty in cases of domestic abuse: Voisine admitted to assaulting his girlfriend and Armstrong confessed to assaulting his wife. In both cases, when law enforcement officials investigated the two men for crimes that occurred later on—Voisine for killing a bald eagle and Armstrong for possession of narcotics—they came across the men’s guns and ammunition. As a result, the men were charged under a federal law that prohibits individuals convicted of misdemeanors or domestic violence from possessing firearms or ammunition.
Under Maine law, it is considered a misdemeanor to “intentionally, knowingly or recklessly [cause] bodily injury… to another.” Both Voisine and Armstrong argued that they should not be denied gun ownership, because their prior misdemeanor convictions were based on “reckless” behavior, while the federal domestic violence law refers only to knowing and intentional acts of assault. Thus, the petitioners believed, if one abuses his wife out of “recklessness,” he should not be considered guilty of domestic violence misdemeanor charges—and should unquestionably be permitted to own rifles, ammunition, and the likes. An interesting claim, to say the least.
The Court ruled 6-2 against the petitioners’ claim. The opinion, delivered by Justice Elena Kagan, held that a “reckless” domestic assault does, indeed, qualify as a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” under the existing federal gun law, and that the men were rightly stripped of their firearms. “Recklessness conduct,” explained the opinion, “which requires the conscious disregard of a known risk, is not an accident: It involves a deliberate decision to endanger another.” Additionally, the Court pointed out that a whopping 35 U.S. states have gun laws in place that mention or extend to acts of “recknlessness”; if the Court sided with Voisine and Armstrong, it would effectively render all of this legislation inoperative.
Though advocates for victims of domestic abuse nationwide can breathe a sigh of relief, this case underscores the need for further gun reform and tightening of legislative loopholes—particularly with regard to universal background checks for prospective gun owners.
Under the 1998 Brady Act, licensed firearm dealers must carry out background checks on all prospective customers, and are not permitted to sell guns to those who are ineligible to purchase them under federal, state or local law—such as the nationwide law barring domestic abusers from procuring firearms. However, there is a glaring gap in current firearms law known as the “gun show” loophole that allows private sales of firearms made by unlicensed dealers, such as many dealers at gun shows, to sell firearms to customers without subjecting them to background checks. 40% of gun purchases are made privately and are thus not subject to background check rules. (Though the most recently published evidence for this figure comes from a 1997 National Institute of Justice survey, fact-checkers at the Washington Post and Politifact have reasoned that the 40% figure may still hold true.) Meanwhile, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, only eight states—CA, CO, CN, DE, NY, OR, RI, WA—and the District of Columbia have laws in place that require universal background checks for gun purchases both in the private and public realms.
This reality means that convicted abusers in most states can easily acquire firearms through private sellers without being subjected to background checks, and Voisine serves as a case-in-point. Voisine’s and Armstrong’s firearms were only discovered and confiscated several years after the men pleaded guilty of domestic abuse, when they were investigated for completely different crimes. Either of the men could have obtained those guns in spite of their record of domestic violence by means of an unlicensed dealer as a result of the existing “gun show” loophole.
And still, even in the wake of the Orlando shooting and despite a 15-hour filibuster by Senator Chris Murphy and a Democratic sit-in in the House chamber to try to force further votes on gun law reform, legislation providing for universal background checks for gun purchases and general gun control measures are getting repeatedly slammed in Congress. How many more mass shootings and instances of gun-related domestic violence need to occur before we become a nation where no one is granted a life-threatening weapon with no questions asked?
Though the decision in Voisine v. United States undoubtedly served justice where it was due, until further action is taken to limit access to firearms, women remain in danger. As it stands, there’s no telling who the next Stephen Voisine and William Armstrong will be—or how many lives hang in the balance while we’re stuck waiting to find out.