Nov 12, 2008

Guns for Spouse Abusers

In 1996, Congress expanded an existing law so that people convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence could not own guns. In November of 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in the case of United States v. Hayes, which requires the Court to interpret the expanded law.

As it happens, only a few states (including California, Illinois, Michigan, and Ohio) have laws that specifically criminalize domestic violence. In other states, domestic violence is illegal under their general laws outlawing assault and battery. Under such a law, Randy Hayes was convicted only of misdemeanor battery in 1994 after beating up his then-wife. A decade later, the police came to Hayes' home after receiving another domestic violence call. When the police found out that Hayes owned guns, Hayes was charged with and convicted of violating the 1996 law forbidding perpetrators of misdemeanor domestic violence from owning guns.

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Hayes argues that the 1996 law does not apply to him, because he was convicted of misdemeanor battery, not of "domestic violence". A federal court of appeals in Virginia accepted this argument and set aside Hayes' conviction. The correctness of that ruling is now before the Supreme Court.

The Justice Department, seeking to uphold Hayes' conviction, argues that Congress clearly intended to prevent people like Hayes from owning guns. Furthermore, the Court shouldn't be swayed by the fact that Hayes was convicted only of a misdemeanor. He seriously beat his then-wife, but as in many domestic violence cases was allowed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor. (Prosecutors are often forced to allow domestic violence perpetrators to plead guilty to reduced charges because the victims refuse to cooperate.)

If the Court upholds Hayes' argument that the 1996 law's gun ban does not apply to him, Congress might re-write the law. A re-written law might outlaw gun ownership by all persons convicted of misdemeanors based on acts of domestic violence. Or, states that do not currently have such laws on their books might enact laws specifically outlawing domestic violence. In either event, the politicians will probably face opposition from the Gun Lobby. For example, the 2nd Amendment Foundation argues that "the right to own a gun shouldn't be taken away over a misdemeanor". I'm sure that thousands of domestic violence victims, as well as the families of the many cops who have been shot and killed while answering domestic violence calls, would disagree.