The Supreme Court appears poised to side with the Justice Department in upholding a decades-old federal statute meant to keep firearms out of the hands of alleged domestic abusers. After hearing more than an hour of oral arguments Tuesday, a majority of the Court signaled that the law aligns with firearm restrictions historically imposed on potentially dangerous individuals. The case marks the first time the Court has revisited Second Amendment rights since its landmark decision last year that drastically limited the government’s ability to restrict access to firearms.
In her opening statement, Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar explained that “Congress designed [the law] to target the most dangerous domestic abusers,” referencing the portion of the 1994 Violence Against Women Act that bars those subjected to domestic violence restraining orders from possessing or purchasing guns. “That principle is firmly grounded in the Second Amendment’s history and tradition,” Prelogar said. “Throughout our nation’s history, legislatures have disarmed those who have committed serious criminal conduct or whose access to guns poses a danger.”
The law has reportedly been used to block more than 77,000 firearm sales. But its constitutionality was questioned by Zackey Rahimi, a Texas man who was indicted for unlawfully possessing a gun while under a restraining order. Rahimi, despite pleading guilty to federal charges, argued that his Second Amendment rights had been violated. His case eventually reached the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, where the notably conservative bench tossed out his federal conviction, striking down the relevant portion of the 1994 law.
The Fifth Circuit ruling, which the Supreme Court agreed to hear in June after an appeal from the Justice Department, took place in the shadow of last year’s New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen. In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court ruled in Bruen that modern laws must be consistent with the nation’s “historical tradition” of limited firearm regulations.
Citing that test, the Fifth Circuit said the restraining order ban “falls outside the class of firearm regulations countenanced by the Second Amendment.” J. Matthew Wright, a public defender who represents Rahimi, made a similar argument Tuesday after liberal justice Elena Kagan asked whether he believes the government has “no right” to pass new gun restrictions absent specific historical precedence. “Your honor, I think that’s largely what Bruen says,” Wright replied, adding, “If the government could affirmatively prove from the historical tradition of either American firearms laws…if they could tie it to one of those historical traditions, that would be good enough under the logic of Bruen, if not the exact rule.”
As for the Court’s conservatives, they seem inclined to adopt a narrow approach to the Rahimi case that would not conflict with the post-Bruen expansion of Second Amendment rights and the “historical” test. For instance, Justice Amy Coney Barrett, a conservative who sided with the majority in Bruen, signaled her agreement with Prelogar by saying there was a historical tradition that shows “the legislature can make judgments to disarm people consistently with the Second Amendment based on dangerousness.”
Prelogar, for her part, used her closing statement to warn that the Bruen decision has generated “destabilizing consequences” for lower courts, adding that there were insufficient “historical” analogs to support disarming criminals convicted of aggravated assault, drug trafficking, and armed robbery.
A ruling in United States v. Rahimi is not expected until July.