The Domestic Violence Offender Gun Ban Survives Yet Another Attack

Activists rally outside the U.S. Supreme Court before the start of oral arguments in the United States v. Rahimi on Nov. 7, 2023. (Bill Clark / CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

On Friday, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a federal law that bars anyone subject to a domestic violence restraining order from possessing a gun. The final ruling in U.S. v. Rahimi was 8-1, with Justice Clarence Thomas dissenting. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John G. Roberts wrote, “Since the founding, our nation’s firearm laws have included provisions preventing individuals who threaten physical harm to others from misusing firearms.”

In Ms., Georgetown University Law professor Victoria F. Nourse broke down how the case made it to the Court in the first place:

“The government charged Zackey Rahimi with violating a decades-old federal law making it a felony to possess a weapon once a court has issued a domestic violence protective order against you. Rahimi is an alleged drug dealer who police say engaged in five shootings in and around Arlington, Texas, in December 2020 and January 2021. When police searched his home, Rahimi admitted that he possessed weapons and that he was the subject of a civil protective order barring him from going near his girlfriend and from possessing a gun.

“Yet the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held that the law charging Rahimi with unlawful gun possession violated his constitutional rights—the right to own a weapon under the Second Amendment”.

So the Biden administration asked the Supreme Court to weigh in.

Stakes in the case were high: Domestic violence abusers have a high rate of recidivism, and the violence is likely to escalate over time. When a firearm is present in a home plagued by domestic abuse, the risk for murder at the hand of the abuser quintuples. As Mary Anne Franks wrote in Ms.: “The facts of Rahimi reveal the gendered and destructive reality of gun use behind the illusion of abstract, idealized self-defense.”

The Feminist Majority—the advocacy arm of the Feminist Majority Foundation, which publishes Ms.—together with the National Network to End Domestic Violence and its then director, Donna Edwards, played a pivotal role in passing the original Domestic Violence Offender Gun Ban at the heart of the Rahimi case, often referred to as “the Lautenberg Amendment,” after its sponsor, the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), in 1996. While individuals convicted of felonies are banned from owning guns, this law also bans those convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence from owning firearms. 

After passage, feminists stood firmly against all attempts to gut the law, like the 1997 and 1999 attempts to exempt police officers and military service personnel from its coverage (which both failed). 

“The law prevented countless tragedies,” said Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority. “It has saved the lives and harm of countless domestic violence survivors, most of whom are women.”

“It took guns out of the hands of thousands of abusers and saved thousands of women’s lives yearly,” said Edwards, who went on to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives. “It is shocking that the Domestic Violence Offender Gun Ban, which was upheld by a Supreme Court decision shortly after it was approved by Congress, was even considered again by the Court for the possible ending of such an effective law.”

Vice President Kamala Harris called the Rahimi case “yet another reminder that some want to take our country back to a time when women were not treated as equal to men and were not allowed to vote—and husbands could subject their wives to physical violence without it being considered a crime.”

Here’s to the feminist allies and advocates ensuring those days stay behind us.

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Katherine Spillar is the executive director of Feminist Majority Foundation and executive editor of Ms., where she oversees editorial content and the Ms. in the Classroom program.