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Victory for Safety: SCOTUS Holds Firearms Ban for Reckless Domestic Violence

June 27, 2016

This morning the Supreme Court held that a reckless domestic assault is a misdemeanor crime of violence, for the purposes of limiting access to firearms, in their opinion for the Voisine v. United States case. The National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) celebrates this decision as a victory for victims and survivors.

Stephen Voisine and William Armstrong, both pleaded guilty in state court to misdemeanor assaults on their respective domestic partners. Several years later, each man was charged with violating a federal law that prohibits the possession of firearms and ammunition by individuals who have previously been convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence. Both Voisine and Armstrong argued their state convictions were not misdemeanor crimes of domestic violence because their crimes were reckless and not intentional. The Supreme Court held that a reckless domestic assault can in fact be qualified as a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” under 922(g)(9), the federal statutory firearm prohibitor.

This landmark decision closes the question left open in the United States v. Castleman case, which affirmed the federal prohibition on firearms possession to those convicted of misdemeanor crimes of domestic violence, but did not clarify if it was applied to reckless assault. Today, the Supreme Court clearly found that reckless assault does require the prohibition.

“The Supreme Court today affirmed what we know – domestic violence escalates and is often deadly. Ensuring that convicted abusers do not have access to firearms will save lives,” said Kim Gandy, President and CEO of NNEDV.

Graphic SCOTUS-Decision- Policy

To make their decision, the Supreme Court analyzed statutory text and background information such as the Congressional intent behind 922(g)(9) in 1996. The Voisine opinion clearly states that reckless conduct is not an accident: it involves a deliberate decision to endanger others (p.4). In an amicus brief submitted by NNEDV and other national partners, we explained an abuser’s pattern of conduct encompasses a wide range of dangerous behaviors that create a complete system of abuse and control. It is incorrect to classify an individual who “recklessly” abuses a partner as acting unintentionally because their actions are deliberate choices, and they are no less culpable than those acting convicted as acting intentionally.

Many perpetrators of domestic violence are often convicted only of misdemeanor crimes. In fact, the Supreme Court opinion states that 35 jurisdictions have assault laws extending to recklessness, and the “petitioners’ reading risked allowing domestic abusers of all mental states to evade 922(g)(9)’s firearms ban.” (p.9) Studies show these misdemeanor perpetrators often escalate the severity of their abuse over time, and the presence of a firearm can increase chances of homicide by nearly 500 percent. [1]

“Today’s decision is a victory for safety and justice. Survivors often face untold and undocumented fear, control, and abuse. When an incident of abuse leads to a conviction, we have to take it seriously and recognize it is likely part of a pattern,” said Gandy. NNEDV applauds the Court for this commitment to hold offenders accountable and prioritize the safety of victims and survivors.

[1] J.C. Campbell, S.W. Webster, J.Koziol-McLain, et al., Risk factors for femicide within physically abuse intimate relationships: results from a multi-state case control study, 93 Amer. J. of Public Health 1089-97 (2003)