Justices Uphold Ban On Guns for Abusers
Law's Intent Called Clear, if Language Isn't
By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 25, 2009; A02
The Supreme Court yesterday affirmed federal efforts to bar those convicted
of crimes involving domestic violence from owning guns.
It was the court's first decision concerning gun rights since last year's
landmark decision recognizing an individual's Second Amendment right to own
a firearm. But the
decision authored by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg
contained nary a word about Heller v. District of Columbia, which struck
down Washington's ban on handguns.
Instead, justices wrangled over language and whether Congress's decision to
ban firearms to those convicted of "a misdemeanor crime of domestic
violence" extended to someone convicted of a generic charge of battery, so
long as there was a proven domestic relationship between the offender and
Ginsburg said Congress might have been inartful in
drafting the 1996 law,
but its intentions and underlying concerns were clear: "Firearms and
domestic strife are a potentially deadly combination nationwide."
Ginsburg was citing the BradyCenter to Prevent Gun Violence in that
passage, and its president, Paul Helmke, said the
ruling is "the right one
for victims of domestic abuse and to protect law enforcement officers who
are our first responders to domestic violence incidents."
The question was whether gun ownership was barred because someone had been
convicted of a generic law against the use of force, or whether the law in
question must specifically have as an element that the victim was in a
domestic relationship with the aggressor.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit said it was the latter. It
threw out the conviction of Randy Edward Hayes, who had been convicted of
battery on his then-wife in 1994. Ten years later, police responding to a
domestic violence call about Hayes and his girlfriend found firearms in the
home and indicted Hayes.
Hayes said that the 1994 battery conviction did not trigger the federal ban
on firearms, because it was not specifically on the charge of domestic
But nine other circuits around the country had read the law the other way,
and Ginsburg said they were right. Fewer than half the states have laws that
specifically denominate domestic violence as an element of a crime.
Excluding domestic abusers convicted under generic battery laws "would
frustrate Congress's manifest purpose," Ginsburg said in announcing her
decision from the bench. Congress would not have enacted something that
"would have been a dead letter in the majority of states from the very
moment of its passage."
But Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., joined by Justice AntoninScalia,
said that the law's ambiguous wording makes it a "textbook case for
application of the rule of lenity" and that the case should be decided in
"Ten years in jail is too much to hinge on the will-o'-the-wisp of
meaning pursued by the majority," Roberts complained. Like Ginsburg, he
not mention the Heller ruling in his dissent.