Should domestic abusers have guns? The US Supreme Court will make its decision in United States v. Rahimi
Zaki Rahimi is not anyone’s idea of a sympathetic hero.
A small-time drug dealer who, according to the government, has a list of gun convictions that include several shootings.
In one incident that occurred in a crowded fast food restaurant, he fired a gun into the air after his friend’s credit card was declined.
On Tuesday in Washington, D.C., Rahimi’s name appeared on the docket of one of the most important gun cases before the nation’s highest court in decades.
Because before the string of gun crimes that eventually ended in his imprisonment, Rahimi found himself subject to a domestic violence restraining order after an incident in 2019.
He attacked his partner in a car park, after telling her he wanted to take their child, and dragged her into the car before threatening her with a gun.
When he noticed that a passerby had witnessed the attack, Rahimi grabbed a firearm from his car and opened fire.
His partner, who was not named in court documents, obtained a restraining order against him.
Under a 1994 federal law, persons subject to these restrictions are prohibited from owning firearms.
So, when police later raided Rahimi’s home in connection with shootings in which he was suspected of involvement, and found a rifle and a handgun, a federal grand jury indicted him.
Under another Supreme Court, that might have been the end of the story.
Another unknown criminal, Rahimi, would have remained incarcerated in a Texas prison after his initial appeal was denied.
But last year, the court dramatically expanded gun rights.
In New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruin, the justices ruled that the government must point to “historical tradition” when defending laws related to the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees Americans the right to bear arms.
This decision, and its reliance on historical customs, has been criticized in some lower courts. The Mississippi Supreme Court complained earlier this year that the justices were “not trained as historians.”
However, the ruling opened a new avenue of appeal for Rahimi.
Earlier this year, Louisiana’s conservative 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a law prohibiting Rahimi from owning a gun was unconstitutional — prompting President Joe Biden’s administration to file an appeal.
United States v. Rahimi represents a litmus test for the Supreme Court’s conservative majority on what, if any, restrictions should be placed on gun rights.
The Biden administration, represented by Attorney General Elizabeth Prelogar, emphasized the increased risk to women in abusive relationships when firearms are present.
Women who live in a home with an armed domestic abuser are five times more likely to be killed, Ms. Prelogar said as she presented the case on Tuesday to the packed courtroom.
She reminded the justices of the court’s 2014 ruling in United States v. Castleman, which stated that “the only difference between a beaten woman and a dead woman is the presence of a gun.”
Preventing those with domestic violence restraining orders from possessing guns would almost immediately become a “full proxy for the denial of a constitutional right,” said Rahimi’s attorney, James Matthew Wright.
But most of the morning’s arguments focused on the court’s understanding of historical precedent. Ms. Prelogar said New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruin was “destabilizing” for lower courts trying to enforce it.
She noted that “dangerous” individuals, such as British Loyalists in the American Revolutionary War era, were disarmed.
But Wright told the court he could find no historical precedent for disarming people, except those convicted of a felony — which does not include the subjects of restraining orders.
When his arguments sometimes slipped away from Second Amendment issues to questions of due process, they were met with skepticism from some justices.
“I’m so confused!” Justice Amy Coney Barrett, a conservative, said at one point, drawing laughter from the courtroom.
Liberal Justice Elena Kagan suggested to Wright that he appeared to be “escaping your argument, because the implications of your argument are indefensible.”
Justice Brett Kavanaugh, another conservative, asked Mr. Wright whether it was “possible that the government was right” in its request.
Mr. Wright persevered, arguing that restraining orders in many states could be permanent.
Rahimi’s call, if successful, could have far-reaching effects.
A range of other restrictions – such as restrictions preventing non-violent criminals from owning a firearm – could also be challenged, Mark Tushnet, a law professor at Harvard University, told the BBC.
He added: “If the court upholds Rahimi’s claim, it will be on the basis of an approach to constitutional interpretation that looks for very precise parallels between gun rules as they existed in the late 18th century and as they have evolved in the modern era.”
“It is very likely that no such similarities will be found with very many existing gun regulations, and that the overall system of gun regulation in the United States will become substantially more receptive to widespread gun ownership.”
Gun rights activists – although Qabool Rahimi is not an ideal person – hope to see another expansion of the right to bear arms.
The National Rifle Association has argued that the bar for restraining orders is too low to remove a constitutional right.
“The government desires the authority to disarm untold thousands of Americans subject to civil protective orders based on all types of marital or relational disputes,” the gun lobby said in its filing.
Outside the Supreme Court on Tuesday, dozens of demonstrators denounced the case.
One sign said: “If I die from domestic violence, throw my body on the steps of the Supreme Court.”