When it comes to “domestic violence,” even pushing or grabbing can be sufficient to bar federal gun possession, the U.S. Supreme Court concluded in a unanimous ruling issued Wednesday morning.
The ruling could have significant implications in interpreting which state domestic violence laws bar gun possession. For women in particular, domestic violence is one of the biggest risks associated with gun ownership. A 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.
Because of this relationship between gun ownership and intimate violence, federal law bars those convicted of a misdemeanor domestic violence offense from possessing a gun. But state crimes dubbed “domestic violence” come with different definitions in different states. And James Alvin Castleman seized on these differences to convince a federal court that he was not guilty of illegal gun possession because his guilty plea for a Tennessee domestic violence offense did not qualify under federal law.
The Supreme Court disagreed with Castleman Wednesday, holding that the crime of “intentionally or knowingly” causing bodily injury to the mother of his child was a crime that involved “physical force,” and that Castleman was therefore barred from possessing a gun.
Congress’ definition of domestic violence includes a requirement that there be physical force, and this is where the dispute arose in this case. Castleman argued that the sort of “physical force” envisioned by the federal statute was more violent than that in the Tennessee statute to which he pled guilty, and therefore did not bar him from owning a gun under federal law. In rejecting this argument, Sotomayor recognized the unique nature of domestic violence, and concluded that the “violence” necessary to have perpetrated the offense against an intimate partner is much different than what would apply to public violence against a stranger.
“Indeed, ‘most physical assaults committed against women and men by intimates are relatively minor and consist of pushing, grabbing, shoving, slapping, and hitting,’” Sotomayor wrote, quoting a Department of Justice report. “Minor uses of force may not constitute ‘violence’ in the generic sense. … But an act of this nature is easy to describe as ‘domestic violence,’ when the accumulation of such acts over time can subject one intimate partner to the other’s control. If a seemingly minor act like this draws the attention of authorities and leads to a successful prosecution for a misdemeanor offense, it does not offend common sense or the English language to characterize the resulting conviction as a ‘misdemeanor crime of domestic violence.’”
The ruling against Castleman was unanimous, although three of the court’s male conservative justices — Antonin Scalia, Samuel Alito, and Clarence Thomas — wrote separate concurrences in part to disagree with Sotomayor’s conception of “domestic violence.”
The decision means not just that states with similar provisions to Tennessee’s may read “violence” more broadly when it relates to domestic offenses. It also means a conviction against Castleman can stand related to his black market sale of guns.
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. As Justice Sotomayor explained in her ruling, Congress added misdemeanor offenses to address the prevalence of domestic gun violence:
This country witnesses more than a million acts of domestic violence, and hundreds of deaths from domestic violence, each year. Domestic violence often escalates in severity over time, and the presence of a firearm increases the likelihood that it will escalate to homicide. Congress enacted §922(g)(9), in light of these sobering facts, to “‘close [a] dangerous loophole’” in the gun control laws: While felons had long been barred from possessing guns, many perpetrators of domestic violence are convicted only of misdemeanors.
But existing law nonetheless omits several other types of domestic violence offenses, including temporary protective orders and stalking offenses. And several bills introduced in Congress aim to fill these gaps.