Domestic violence and guns are known to be a deadly combination. Over half of all women killed by intimate partners between 2001 to 2012 were killed using a gun, according to the Center for American Progress. Experts say that if an abuser has access to a gun, victims are five times more likely to be killed. A domestic violence attack by a perpetrator with a gun is 12 times more likely to end in death than an assault using another weapon. Simply living in a state with a high rate of gun ownership increases a woman’s chance of being fatally shot in a domestic violence situation.
Thankfully, a wave of state legislation has been enacted across the nation to keep alleged abusers away from guns that can be used to injure or kill their partners. (Washington’s law is codified in RCW 9.41.040.) Congress also enacted the Lautenberg Amendment which prohibits individuals convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors from legally owning or buying guns.
Two years ago, the Supreme Court affirmed the constitutionality of the Lautenberg Amendment as it applies to knowing or intentional acts of domestic violence in United States v. Castleman. On Monday, the Supreme Court issued an opinion in Voisine v. United States, affirming that a domestic violence assault committed “recklessly” also qualifies as a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence, and therefore triggers the federal ban on gun ownership.
The court rejected arguments that the gun ban only applies to intentional acts of abuse. Writing for the majority, Justice Kagen reasoned, “Then, as now, a significant majority of jurisdictions—34 States plus the District of Columbia—defined such misdemeanor offenses to include the reckless infliction of bodily harm. In targeting those laws, Congress thus must have known it was sweeping in some persons who had engaged in reckless conduct.”
While this is indeed a victory to be celebrated, it is a somewhat hollow victory. An Everytown for Gun Safety analysis from 2014 found gaping loopholes. “[F]ederal law (and the law in most states) allows domestic abusers and stalkers to easily evade gun prohibitions by purchasing guns from unlicensed, private sellers,” the report pointed out, noting that 1 in 4 prohibited gun buyers who turned to the internet for weapons had a domestic violence arrest on record. What’s more, “forty-one states do not require all prohibited domestic abusers to relinquish guns they already own.”
Voisine himself demonstrates this problem. He was barred from owning guns starting in 2003, but he continued to keep them in his home until 2009, when the discovery that he had shot a bald eagle—an endangered species—led officers to notice that he shouldn’t have had a rifle in the first place.
It’s a relief that Voisine failed to tear a hole in the Lautenberg Amendment. The idea that domestic abusers shouldn’t have guns is pretty uncontroversial, even in Congress and among the court’s conservative Justices. It’s depressing, however, that despite that consensus, so many offenders have no trouble staying armed.