WASHINGTON – The US Supreme Court is preparing to weigh the legality of a federal law that makes it a crime for people under domestic violence restraining orders to have guns.
The hearing that opens on Tuesday is the latest major case to test the willingness of the court’s conservative majority to further expand gun rights.
Oral arguments are scheduled in an appeal by the administration of President Joe Biden against a lower court ruling that struck down the law — intended to protect victims of domestic abuse — as a violation of the US Constitution’s Second Amendment right to “keep and bear arms”.
The New Orleans-based 5th US Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that the measure failed a stringent test set by the Supreme Court in a 2022 ruling that required gun laws to be “consistent with the nation’s historical tradition of firearm regulation” in order to survive a Second Amendment challenge.
Advocacy groups for victims of domestic violence have warned of the grave danger posed by armed abusers, citing studies that show that the presence of guns increases the chances that an abused intimate partner will die.
In a country bitterly divided over how to address firearms violence including frequent mass shootings, the court’s 6-3 conservative majority has taken an expansive view of the Second Amendment and has broadened gun rights in three landmark rulings since 2008.
Its 2022 ruling, in a case called New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v Bruen, recognised a constitutional right to carry a handgun in public for self-defence, striking down a New York state law.
The case being heard this week involves Zackey Rahimi, a Texas man who pleaded guilty to illegally possessing guns while he was subject to a restraining order for assaulting his girlfriend in a parking lot and later threatening to shoot her. Police found the guns while searching his residence in connection with at least five shootings.
Violating the law initially was punishable by up to 10 years in prison but the penalty has since been raised to 15 years.
A federal judge rejected Rahimi’s Second Amendment challenge and sentenced him to more than six years in prison. The 5th Circuit in February set aside Rahimi’s conviction, concluding that although he was “hardly a model citizen”, the law at issue was an “outlier” that could not stand under the new standard the justices announced in the Bruen ruling.
The Biden administration has said the law should survive because of the long tradition in the United States of taking guns from people deemed dangerous.
Supporters of Rahimi have argued that judges too easily issue restraining orders in an unfair process that results in the deprivation of the constitutional gun rights of accused abusers.
A ruling is expected by the end of June.