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Supreme Court limits gun ownership for domestic violence offenders

Decision clarifies the meaning of ‘physical force’ and bars more misdemeanor convicts from possessing a firearm

People convicted of domestic-violence offenses may now find it harder to own a gun, after the Supreme Court this week clarified which crimes of “physical force” would bar misdemeanor convicts from possessing a firearm.

In U.S. v. Castleman, the justices on Wednesday ruled in favor of the Obama administration and advocates for battered women, overturning a decision by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio and Michigan. James Castleman, the Tennessean at the center of the case, had been convicted of assaulting the mother of his child in 2001. When he was brought up on gun-related offenses in 2009, he was also charged with illegal possession: Federal prosecutors argued that his domestic-violence misdemeanor should have put guns permanently out of his reach.

Federal law forbids anyone convicted of a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” — defined as involving “physical force” — from possessing a firearm. Such misdemeanors vary in substance from state to state, however, and Castleman had pled guilty to a charge of causing “bodily injury” to the woman. His crime, he argued, was not sufficiently violent to bring him under the firearms ban.

Writing for the Court, Justice Sonia Sotomayor disagreed. She emphasized that domestic violence is often prosecuted under battery laws and that it takes many forms, not all of which connote “a substantial degree of force.”

Advocates for survivors praised the decision. “A woman’s risk of being killed increases 500 percent when a gun is present in domestic-violence settings,” said Maureen Curtis, associate vice president of criminal justice programs at Safe Horizon, a legal and social services organization. “The decision is great because it recognizes that domestic violence comes in many forms. It’s not always physical or sexual violence.”

Gun-rights activists were disappointed by the Court’s decision, and still object to the original statute limiting gun ownership. John Monroe, attorney for the group Georgia Carry — which successfully lobbied for an expansive concealed-weapons law in that state — worries that the Castleman ruling goes too far. Common-law battery as construed by the opinion, he said, “opens the door to a lot of things that are well outside a lay person’s expectation of what a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence would be. People think a misdemeanor is relatively minor. You pay a fine and go about your life. Then, a few years later, you go to a sporting good store to get a gun, and you can’t get one.”

The friend-of-the court briefs in U.S. v. Castleman lined up as might be expected — with the exception of public defense lawyers and immigration advocates, who sided with gun advocates. ASISTA, an Iowa-based organization for immigrant survivors of domestic and sexual violence, was concerned that redefining misdemeanors could unintentionally lead to the deportation of domestic-violence survivors. Battered immigrant women arrested in domestic disputes often face complications with their immigration status. But Justice Sotomayor’s decision devoted a footnote to the meaning of “domestic violence” under immigration law.

“We’re thrilled that the decision recognizes that, in immigration law, there are individuals who plead [guilty] to domestic violence convictions who may not have pled to what’s considered a crime of violence under immigration law,” said Grace Huang, public policy coordinator for the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

But Huang said the ultimate impact of the Castleman decision depends on what states do with the ruling. “Everybody’s going to have to determine what their state misdemeanor domestic-violence statute looks like,” she said. “In our state it’s an assault, but in other states, there might be prongs that don’t qualify [as a misdemeanor] and prongs that do.”

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