June 24, 2024

United States v. Rahimi

On Friday, the Supreme Court issued an 8-1 decision in United States v. Rahimi, upholding a federal law which disarms domestic abusers. The decision comes on the heels of the landmark 2022 decision, New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen, which ruled that gun regulations are presumptively unconstitutional if they are not consistent with nation’s “historical tradition of firearm regulation.”

The Court’s new ruling establishes that to survive the Bruen test, the government need not identify a direct “historical twin” so long as they can identify analogous historical principles, but concurrences and dissents acknowledged uncertainty on what level of generality would be sufficient to resolve future cases.

What You Need to Know

  • Relevant Precedent: Last year, the Supreme Court issued a landmark decision on gun regulations in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen, holding that state laws restricting access to guns are unconstitutional unless they were “consistent with this Nation’s historical tradition of firearm regulation.” The decision was widely criticized, with many scholars predicting that it would disturb many previously accepted gun safety regulations.
  • Law at Issue: In Rahimi, the Court is considering the constitutionality of a federal law that prohibits anyone subject to a domestic violence restraining order from possessing firearms. The law requires a court to determine, after notice and a hearing, that the subject to be restrained poses a threat to an intimate partner or that partner’s children, but it does not require a criminal conviction.
  • Facts of this Case: In 2020, a Texas state court imposed a civil restraining order on Zackey Rahimi, after he assaulted his ex-girlfriend, threatened to shoot her if she told anybody about it, and fired a gun at a witness to the assault. Among other conditions, the restraining order forbade Rahimi from possessing firearms. After several subsequent incidents in which Rahimi opened fire in public, law enforcement executed a search of Rahimi’s home where they recovered firearms. Rahimi was charged and convicted of violating the federal law described above. Rahimi appealed his conviction to the Fifth Circuit, arguing that the law disarming him was unconstitutional, and the Fifth Circuit ruled in his favor.
  • Question Presented to the Court: Whether the Second Amendment bars the government from prohibiting individuals who are subject to a domestic violence restraining order from possessing firearms.
  • What happened at the Oral Argument?: The justices focused in large part on what level of specificity the Court requires when considering history and tradition as part of the “text, history, and tradition” analysis in Bruen. The justices seemed receptive to the government’s argument that history and the Court’s own precedent support the government disarming certain categories of citizens who pose a higher risk of future danger if armed. Justice Jackson repeatedly probed the underlying validity of the history and traditions test, noting that Native people and slaves were originally excluded from the Second Amendment and questioning whether “only certain people's history counts.” Justice Gorsuch signaled that, even if the law is held to be facially constitutional, as-applied challenges may raise more difficult constitutional questions in the future.
  • What Did the Court Decide?: After examining Founding Era laws and regulations, the Court found that there is a historic tradition supporting the principle that individuals found by a court to pose a credible threat to the physical safety of others may be temporarily disarmed. Specifically, the Court pointed to surety laws, which required persons found to pose a threat of future violence to others to post a bond, and “going armed” laws which allowed for people who menaced others with firearms to be disarmed or imprisoned. Justices Sotomayor, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, Barrett, and Jackson filed concurring opinions, while Justice Thomas dissented, arguing that that laws identified by the majority were too dissimilar to the law disarming domestic abusers.
  • Practical Impact: As Justice Jackson noted in her concurrence, the Bruen decision and its novel “history and tradition” test has led to inconsistent rulings among lower courts considering challenges to gun regulations and placed heavy burdens on state governments and legislatures to identify “historical twins” to proposed gun regulations. The Court’s new ruling is likely to result in more flexible historical inquiries being applied in lower courts, and more gun regulations being successfully defended.