By Melissa Galatas
It’s hard to overstate how much the law affects domestic violence victims. From keeping dangerous weapons out of abusers’ hands to keeping survivors’ whereabouts confidential, policies set at every level of government can greatly impact victims’ safety.
Let’s look at some of the watershed legislation of the past — and the decisions that are poised to affect the future.
THE VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN ACT AND OTHER MILESTONES
When the Violence Against Women Act was signed into law in 1994, it revolutionized the nation’s responses to domestic violence by providing dozens of new protections for victims, including a federal ban on firearm possession by those with a domestic abuse protection order against them. In 1996, the Lautenberg Amendment was added to the Federal Gun Control Act of 1968, banning firearm possession by those convicted of a misdemeanor domestic violence crime. These laws were widely celebrated by victim advocates because gun ownership by an abusive person significantly increases the risk of homicide within that family unit.
There is also a link between domestic abuse and mass shootings. A 2021 study analyzing mass shootings from 2014-2019 found that in 68.2 percent of mass shootings, the perpetrator either killed a partner or family member or had a history of domestic abuse.
Since then, these gun bans have been challenged in courts nationwide. Questions about the uniformity of domestic abuse protection order criteria and the various definitions of assault within criminal misdemeanor statutes have complicated the issue and left legal scholars wondering how courts will weigh Second Amendment rights against the interest of public safety. So far, precedent has upheld a means-to-an-end scrutiny, finding that the societal benefits of these bans outweigh the rights of domestic abusers to possess firearms — until Bruen.
THE IMPACT OF THE BRUEN CASE
New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen challenged the constitutionality of New York State’s 1911 Sullivan Act, which required concealed carry permit applicants to “show proper cause” for obtaining a permit. In Justice Clarence Thomas’s opinion, released on June 23, 2022, he wrote that firearm regulation must be justified by, “demonstrating that it is consistent with the nation’s historical tradition of firearm regulation,” thus changing the way courts assess those regulations.
Before the Bruen opinion came down, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which includes Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi, had upheld the conviction of Zackey Rahimi, who was caught in possession of firearms while an active domestic abuse protection order was in place. Police discovered the firearms during their investigation into five separate shootings involving Rahimi.
When Bruen was announced, the Fifth Circuit withdrew its opinion, ruling that the law banning domestic abusers from obtaining firearms is unconstitutional and calling this ban on firearms possession an “outlier that our ancestors would never have accepted.”
This ruling is shocking to those of us who work with victim-survivors of abuse. The use of guns for fear, intimidation and control in these relationships is enough to justify possession bans, and considering the homicide risk when an abusive person owns a gun, the bans are vital to ensure public safety.
WHAT’S NEXT: UNITED STATES V. RAHIMI
United States v. Rahimi will be heard by the Supreme Court on Nov. 7, and this ruling probably will be released in June 2024. Will the court use the criteria set in Bruen, or will it adjust in the interest of public safety?
Domestic violence victim advocates nationwide will pay close attention to the court’s arguments as they’re released and prepare clients who may face escalating danger.
Melissa Galatas is the domestic violence coordinator with the Gulf Coast Center for Nonviolence. Reach her at (228) 436-3809 or firstname.lastname@example.org.