Domestic Abusers Can Lose Gun Rights, Rules High Court

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday rejected arguments by two Maine men and upheld a federal law prohibiting people convicted of domestic violence from owning guns, even if the assault that led to the charge was not intentional.
by | June 28, 2016 AT 12:00 PM

By Matt Byrne

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday rejected arguments by two Maine men and upheld a federal law prohibiting people convicted of domestic violence from owning guns, even if the assault that led to the charge was not intentional.

The decision validates a portion of the sweeping federal prohibition, in effect since 1996, that bars felons, fugitives and other groups of people from owning guns, including anyone convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence crimes.

In a 6-2 opinion written by Justice Elena Kagan, the court answers a question previously left open by the court after it last reviewed the gun control measure: Should someone who acted recklessly, but not intentionally, at the time of a misdemeanor domestic assault be allowed to own a gun?

The two men were Stephen L. Voisine of Wytopitlock, who was convicted of assaulting his girlfriend on two separate occasions as well as an unrelated charge of killing a bald eagle, and William E. Armstrong III, of New Vineyard, who was convicted of assaulting his wife on two occasions.

Voisine and Armstrong were each convicted of domestic violence assault and later were found with guns during unrelated law enforcement investigations. They argued before the court that antiquated principles of common law require a clear indication of intentionality for such an assault conviction and therefore the federal statute should be invalidated.

The court rejected that argument, writing that Congress intended to include in the firearms prohibition exactly the type of misdemeanor cases of domestic assault of which the men were convicted.

"Nothing suggests that, in enacting (the prohibition on firearm ownership), Congress wished to look beyond that real world to a common-law precursor that had largely expired," Kagan wrote. "To the contrary, such an approach would have undermined Congress's aim by tying the ban on firearms possession not to the laws under which abusers are prosecuted but instead to a legal anachronism."

In Kagan's majority opinion, she wrote that when the 1996 federal law was enacted, 34 states and the District of Columbia include reckless conduct in defining domestic violence assault, and have included such language for decades.

The court, in explaining its reasoning, used the analogy of a plate that slips from someone's grasp and shatters, causing injury to a spouse or partner -- a pure accident that is not the result of reckless conduct and therefore not a crime. By comparison, a plate thrown at a wall that also shatters and injures an intimate partner standing nearby is a result of reckless conduct, regardless of whether the thrower intended to harm their loved one, and therefore the thrower is criminally culpable.

Justices Clarence Thomas and Sonia Sotomayor dissented from the majority, arguing that "use of force" is a critical term that implies intention, and therefore a reckless use of force is contradictory, and fails to separate the state of mind required to use force, and the separate state of mind for causing harm with that force.

The case also represented a notable footnote in the high court's history: It was during oral arguments in this case that Justice Clarence Thomas broke 10 years of silence on the court, asking his first question from the bench since Feb. 22, 2006.

Virginia Villa, who represented the defendants on appeal, said that while she accepted the court's ruling, she believes the decision will complicate life for other defendants facing misdemeanor domestic assault charges who may be attracted to accepting a guilty plea as a rapid resolution to a criminal case, without considering the lifetime prohibition from owning a gun.

"It will be interesting to see what the fallout will be," Villa said. "Misdemeanor courts are scary places, because a lot of people plead guilty even when they're not."

However, law enforcement and domestic violence advocates welcomed the court's opinion.

Maine Attorney General Janet Mills applauded the decision, which came a few days before her office is expected to release its biennial examination of domestic violence murders in Maine, which account for nearly half of all homicides in the state.

"I think Maine law has been sincere on this subject for 40 years, and other states have followed suit since then, recognizing an assault is an assault is an assault, whether a person meant to do it or didn't mean to do it," Mills said. "As the majority opinion said, it hurts just as bad if someone hits you recklessly if someone hits you intentionally."

In the ten-year period ending in 2015, 115 of the state's 244 murders, or about 47 percent, according to the Attorney General's office.

Francine Garland Stark, the executive director of the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence, said the decision affirms a major point of domestic violence policy that is backed up by research: Keeping firearms from the hands of convicted domestic violence abusers reduces the risk of harm to others in the long term.

"We recognize a really strong connection between people who have committed domestic violence assaults and their increased lethality when they continue this behavior and they have a gun," Stark said.

Voisine was found guilty of assaulting his domestic partner in 2003 and 2005. He was arrested again in 2009 on a charge of killing a bald eagle and turned over his rifle to police when they were investigating the case.

He was then charged under the federal law that bars most convicts, including those convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence assaults, from possessing guns.

Armstrong was convicted of assaulting his wife in 2002 and again in 2008. Two years later when his house was raided in 2010 by Maine State Police troopers looking for drug paraphernalia and marijuana, investigators found several firearms and a load of ammunition. But because the guns and ammunition were not part of the court-approved search, the matter was referred to the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Although ATF agents later found only ammunition in the house, Armstrong admitted he had arranged for a friend to remove the guns, and he was charged under the same federal statute. His and Voisine's cases were combined on appeal.

The two men had also argued in their appeal that the federal charges violated their Second, Fifth and Sixth amendment rights and were ex post facto laws that had a retroactive effect. The Supreme Court said it would not consider that part of the appeal.

Phone messages left at addresses listed for Armstrong and Voisine were not immediately returned Monday.

(c)2016 the Portland Press Herald (Portland, Maine)