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U.S. Supreme Court Gives Broad Reading to Federal Firearm Prohibition for "Domestic Violence"

Friday, March 28, 2014

Since 1996, the so-called "Lautenberg Amendment" (named for its sponsor, Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ)), has banned the acquisition or possession of firearms by anyone convicted of a "misdemeanor crime of domestic violence."  Applicable crimes are limited to those that have "as an element, the use or attempted use of physical force, or the threatened use of a deadly weapon" and that are committed by persons with a specified relationship to the victim, such as a current or former spouse or a parent.   The prohibition applies no matter when the offense occurred and can include convictions that predated the 1996 law.

Over the years, federal appellate courts have differed on what degree of "physical force" is necessary to trigger the disability.  Questions have also arisen over whether a conviction could count if it occurred under a statute that covered both acts requiring force and those that did not (such as simply scaring the victim).  Thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling last Wednesday in United States v. Castleman, one of these questions has now been resolved in a way that gives the federal prohibition its broadest possible reading.

James Alvin Castleman was convicted in Tennessee of "having intentionally or knowingly caused bodily injury" to his child's mother.  The statute in question could be violated in three separate ways: (1) intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly causing bodily injury to another; (2) intentionally or knowingly causing another reasonably to fear imminent bodily injury; or (3) intentionally or knowingly causing physical contact with another in a manner that a reasonable person would regard as extremely offensive or provocative (whether or not injury resulted).   The "injury" requirement of the first offense type was broadly defined to include a cut, abrasion, bruise, burn, disfigurement, physical pain, or temporary impairment of a bodily member, organ, or mental faculty.  Thus, the statute could be violated with no physical force whatsoever or very minor, non-injurious physical force.

Castleman claimed that his conviction did not trigger the federal disability, because Congress only meant to prohibit those convicted of domestic violence.  Thus, he claimed, the only statutes that could count were those that could only be violated by committing violent (or more than nominal) physical force.  A statute that could be violated by mere offensive touching (pushing, shoving, poking, grabbing, etc.) should not count.

The Court disagreed and found that as long as the statute required some degree of offensive physical contact for a violation to occur, a conviction under that statute would trigger the federal disability.  It did not, however, reach the question of whether broad statutes like Tennessee's, which could be violated with or without force, would always be counted.  This was because Castleman had admitted he was convicted under the most demanding test of the statute, that requiring actual physical injury.  The Court reasoned that any injury, no matter how slight, must require the use of at least some "physical force."

The Court provided a number of rationales for its holding.  It reasoned, for example, that that "domestic violence" is not violence in the commonly understood sense but in the broader sense of an accumulation of acts over time that established one person's control over another.  Thus, it could include not just injurious abuse but more minor physical acts including hitting, slapping, shoving, pushing, grabbing, pinching, scratching, shaking, twisting, spitting, or restraining.  The Court acknowledged that "most physical assaults committed against women and men by intimates are minor …."  Nevertheless, it also opined, "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.'" 

Importantly, the Court did not resolve the important question of whether so broad an application of the statute (and the resulting lifetime loss of the right to acquire and possess firearms) would violate the Second Amendment.  Essentially, it ruled that question was not properly before it and would have to be resolved in another case.

Besides applying to a broader range of convictions in the future, this ruling also means that prior convictions will become subject to the new rule in those jurisdictions that had embraced a narrower reading of the federal statute.  Federally licensed dealers are thus being notified that some customers who had formerly passed NICS checks may now be subject to denials.

The Court's interpretation of the statute is final and authoritative.  It can now only be changed by Congress.  Whether that will happen or whether a Second Amendment challenge will be brought to a broad application of the statute are questions only time will tell.

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