U.S. v. Rahimi Denies Abusers Firearms. The Decision Is an Outlier.

When it comes to gun control, the Rahimi ruling is not an indication that the tides of the conservative Supreme Court have turned.

Students from Washington local high schools demonstrate for stricter gun control outside the White House on Feb. 21, 2018. (Xinhua Ting Shen / Getty Images)

Survivors of domestic violence have won a battle in the war for common sense gun regulations. In an 8-1 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court held Friday, June 21, that abusers subject to protective orders can continue to be denied access to firearms.

The decision in Rahimi v. United States to uphold federal law will save lives. Over half of women under the age of 45 who are murdered in the United States are killed by their intimate partner. Guns are the weapon of choice in these heartbreaking, and preventable, crimes. 

Disarming domestic abusers makes our communities safer. A sizeable percentage of men who commit mass shootings have a history of intimate partner violence, and perpetrators are more likely than the average citizen to endanger the life of a police officer.

Zackey Rahimi—the Texas man who brought suit to declare the federal domestic violence protective order gun prohibition unconstitutional—is an embodiment of these statistics. A series of violent attacks against the mother of his child led her to seek a protective order against him. The order required him to surrender any guns he had and forbade him from obtaining new ones. He then not only violated that order, but mere months later committed an aggravated assault with a deadly weapon—another gun—against a different woman. 

As domestic abusers often do, he then turned his sights on the community. Within the span of five weeks, he fired into the home of his drug dealer and shot at multiple cars during road rage incidents; he fired shots in the air both while driving through a residential neighborhood and after his friend’s credit card was declined at a Whataburger drive-through. Even the most ardent defender of the Second Amendment would agree Rahimi is not the type of person who should be entrusted with a gun. 

The Bruen Test and Modern Gun Regulation

Rahimi was the Court’s first opportunity to clarify its 2022 Bruen test, under which any restriction on firearms that is inconsistent with the United States’ “historical tradition of firearm regulation” is unconstitutional. Narrowly applying Bruen, a federal appellate court in Texas struck down the firearm prohibition in Rahimi’s protective order because such protections for victims of intimate partner abuse had not existed at the nation’s founding (when, it should be remembered, domestic abuse was both commonplace and not unlawful). 

Last week’s opinion in Rahimi clarified that modern-day gun regulations need not have an “historical twin” to be constitutional. If that were the standard, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote, the law would be “trapped in amber.” The ruling is a reminder to lower courts that the Constitution requires contemporary laws be only “relevantly similar” to those that existed when the Second Amendment was ratified in 1791. Even conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett acknowledged the need for this “wider lens,” noting in her concurring opinion that historical regulations need to “reveal a principle, not a mold.”

Rahimi, however, is not a broader indication that the tides of this conservative court have turned, including on gun control measures more broadly.

Viewing Rahimi as an Outlier

On June 14, the Court struck down an ATF rule prohibiting so-called bump stocks, which turn semi-automatic firearms into machine guns. The ban stemmed from a 2017 mass shooting in which a gunman with bump stock-equipped rifles murdered 60 people and wounded hundreds more at a music festival in Las Vegas. 

Justice Clarence Thomas, the author of that opinion, was the lone dissenter in Rahimi, but three of the other conservative justices wrote separate opinions to declare their commitment to originalism and suggest that Rahimi—likely because of its egregious facts, unsympathetic defendant and sympathetic cause—may be an outlier. These justices were practically pleading for additional Second Amendment cases through which they could limit gun regulations. Particularly troubling is Justice Neil Gorsuch positing a hypothetical abuser who needs a gun for self-defense. Would the Court limit Rahimi’s holding if faced with such a fact pattern? 

Survivors of domestic violence are safer when guns are out of the hands of abusers. We are all safer when fewer guns are circulating on our streets. The road toward such a future is long. But for today, we can take satisfaction that for this Court, allowing domestic abusers access to deadly weapons is a bridge too far.

Up next:

U.S. democracy is at a dangerous inflection point—from the demise of abortion rights, to a lack of pay equity and parental leave, to skyrocketing maternal mortality, and attacks on trans health. Left unchecked, these crises will lead to wider gaps in political participation and representation. For 50 years, Ms. has been forging feminist journalism—reporting, rebelling and truth-telling from the front-lines, championing the Equal Rights Amendment, and centering the stories of those most impacted. With all that’s at stake for equality, we are redoubling our commitment for the next 50 years. In turn, we need your help, Support Ms. today with a donation—any amount that is meaningful to you. For as little as $5 each month, you’ll receive the print magazine along with our e-newsletters, action alerts, and invitations to Ms. Studios events and podcasts. We are grateful for your loyalty and ferocity.


Natalie Nanasi is an associate professor of law at the Dedman School of Law, SMU Dallas, where she directs the Judge Elmo B. Hunter Legal Center for Victims of Crimes Against Women.