The U.S. Supreme Court will hear a case on whether some domestic violence convictions don’t count for the purpose of federal gun prohibitions. In one of eight cases the justices announced they would hear Tuesday, James Alvin Castleman is arguing that his misdemeanor domestic assault conviction under Tennessee law does not bar him from owning a gun.
Castleman’s case tells a revealing story about gun transfers in America. In 2001, Castleman pleaded guilty to misdemeanor domestic assault, for “intentionally or knowingly” causing bodily injury to the mother of his child. Seven years later, federal agents linked a gun recovered in a homicide investigation back to Castleman’s wife. They learned that Castleman and his wife had been involved in a scheme to illegally sell firearms.
Because federal law bars those with convictions for violent misdemeanors from possessing or transferring guns, and Castleman had a domestic violence conviction, Castleman’s wife purchased the guns and claimed they were for her. She then gave the guns to James Castleman, who sold the guns on the black market. Castleman was indicted by a grand jury for illegal possession of firearms but a federal district court dismissed the charges, finding that the Tennessee crime to which Castleman pled guilty did not constitute a “misdemeanor crime of violence” as defined by the federal gun law, because it does not necessarily involve the “use or attempted use of physical force” as defined by federal law.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed this dismissal, in a 2-1 ruling that included three different opinions. It reasoned that the sort of “physical force” envisioned by the federal statute was more violent than that in the Tennessee statute, since an assault was possible without physical force. It relied in part on a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court holding that a Florida battery statute did not constitute a “violent felony” as defined in a section of the federal gun law that permits the extension of a defendant’s sentence.
Even then, the U.S. Supreme Court made clear that its ruling applied only to violent felonies, and not to misdemeanors, writing, “We do not decide that the phrase has the same meaning in the context of defining a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence.” But the Sixth Circuit is nonetheless now the second federal appeals court to decide that a state misdemeanor domestic violence offense does not bar gun possession.
The Supreme Court’s review comes as several members of Congress have proposed laws to add even more domestic violence-related offenses to the federal background checks list. Among the crimes they seek to include are temporary protective orders and misdemeanor stalking crimes. With congressional action stalled on guns, a Supreme Court ruling to exempt some misdemeanors would instead roll that protection back.
For women in particular, domestic violence is one of the biggest risks associated with gun ownership. A recent Violence Policy Center review of 2011 FBI crime data found that 94 percent of female homicide victims were murdered by a male they knew, and 61 percent of those killers were a spouse or intimate acquaintance. Female intimate partners were more likely to be killed by a gun than any other weapon.
The prohibition of domestic violence offenses is a major component of federal background checks, accounting for more than 14 percent of rejected federal firearms transfers even without the additional prohibitions on stalking and temporary protective orders. And as this case shows, those numbers don’t account for the many individuals who obtain a gun through illicit means.
The U.S. Supreme Court already has a blockbuster docket this term that includes major cases on abortion, campaign finance, unions, and the environment. Among the other cases it agreed to take Tuesday — while much of the rest of the federal government was shut down — are three copyright disputes, one on a long-running dispute over the screenplay for the movie Raging Bull. It also agreed to consider the constitutionality of traffic stops based on anonymous tips to police.