by Marium Durrani, Public Policy Attorney, National Network to End Domestic Violence
On June 27th, the Supreme Court made clear what most people can agree is a pretty uncontroversial idea: that domestic abusers shouldn’t have access to guns. Voisine v. United States marked a victory celebrated by domestic violence advocates, victims and allies around the country. The Court held that a ‘reckless domestic assault’ is a misdemeanor crime of violence, for the purposes of prohibiting access to firearms.
To understand this case, it’s important to understand the historic passage of the Lautenberg Amendment in 1996, a federal law prohibiting a person who has been convicted of a domestic violence crime from owning a firearm. The corresponding statute, 18 U.S.C. 922(g)(9), states: “It shall be unlawful for any person-who has been convicted in any court of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence, to ship or transport in interstate or foreign commerce, or possess in or affecting commerce, any firearm or ammunition; or to receive any firearm or ammunition which has been shipped or transported in interstate or foreign commerce.” The law reflected the reality that many perpetrators of domestic violence are only convicted of misdemeanors. Moreover, studies show these misdemeanor perpetrators often escalate the severity of their abuse over time, and the presence of a firearm can increase chances of homicide by nearly 500 percent. Recently two cases, Castleman and Voisine, have challenged the Lautenberg amendment, seeking to redefine the meaning of what domestic violence is. Each time such cases rise to the Supreme Court, domestic violence advocates wait with bated breath for a decision that could uphold or dismantle an incredible tool used to keep survivors safe.
In 2001, Castleman was charged with “intentionally or knowingly caus[ing] bodily injury” to the mother of his child and then was found selling firearms on the black market. Castleman’s attorneys argued that his abuse was not severe enough to count as domestic violence. The Supreme Court disagreed and held that offensive touching satisfied the “physical force” requirement of the federal statute. This was a victory for victims and their families.
Just as Castleman was resolved, Voisine rose to the Supreme Court. The Voisine case began in 2002 and 2003 for William Armstrong III and Stephen Voisine respectively, when each petitioner was convicted of assaulting their domestic partners. When Voisine was arrested in 2009 for killing a bald eagle, he was charged for violating § 922 (g)(9). In 2010, while enforcement officers searched the Armstrong residence for drugs and drug paraphernalia, they found a stockpile of weapons and ammunition, leading to his conviction under the same federal statute for firearm possession.