By Michelle D. Schwartz
AFJ Director of Justice Programs
These are not encouraging times for those of us who care about reducing gun violence.
Mass shootings are met with shrugs.
Legislation to improve background checks has scarcely seen the light of day since it was filibustered nearly a year ago.
AFJ Justice Programs Director Michelle Schwartz and the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg
And the nominee to be Surgeon General finds himself in the gun lobby’s crosshairs because he has reached the seemingly self-evident conclusion that gun violence is a public health issue.
So I was relieved last week to receive some good news on the gun violence prevention front from a place I don’t generally turn for solace these days—the United States Supreme Court.
Federal law prohibits anyone convicted of “a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” from possessing firearms. In United States v. Castleman, the court considered which crimes fit that definition. As the New York Times wrote:
The case concerned James A. Castleman, a Tennessee man who in 2001 was convicted of assault in state court for causing bodily injury to the mother of his child. Court records do not say precisely what he did or what injuries the woman sustained.
When Mr. Castleman was indicted under the federal gun law, he argued that it did not apply to him because his state conviction did not qualify as a crime of domestic violence. Though the federal law defines a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” as one involving the use of physical force, he argued that the state law under which he was charged did not require proof of such force.
In a unanimous decision, the Court disagreed with Castleman—and with the district and circuit courts below—and held that “Castleman’s conviction for having ‘intentionally or knowingly cause[d] bodily injury to’ the mother of his child qualifies as a ‘misdemeanor crime of domestic violence.’”
In her opinion for six justices (concurrences were filed by Justice Scalia and by Justice Alito for himself and Justice Thomas), Justice Sotomayor wrote that, for purposes of this statute, “the requirement of ‘physical force’ is satisfied . . . by the degree of force that supports a common-law battery conviction.” Such acts of violence may be relatively minor, and could include hitting, slapping, shoving, grabbing, pinching, hair pulling, and “a squeeze of the arm that causes a bruise.” “[A]n act of this nature is easy to describe as ‘domestic violence,’” Justice Sotomayor wrote, “when the accumulation of such acts over time can subject one intimate partner to the other’s control.”
This decision is a victory for victims of domestic abuse. It is a victory for those who advocate for domestic violence victims and for gun violence prevention.
But this decision is deeply personal for me, too.
That’s because it means that my hero and late boss, Senator Frank R. Lautenberg of New Jersey, will continue saving lives.
The law at issue in Castleman is often referred to as the “Lautenberg Amendment” because Senator Lautenberg authored it in 1996. It was one of the Senator’s proudest accomplishments, and he spoke frequently—really, really frequently—of how the law had prevented convicted domestic abusers from purchasing firearms on approximately 200,000 occasions. It’s hard to know how many lives have been saved as a result, but a Department of Justice study cited in Justice Sotomayor’s opinion offers a clue: “When a gun was in the house, an abused woman was 6 times more likely than other abused women to be killed.”
While working for Senator Lautenberg, I had the privilege of working on an amicus brief he, along with Senators Feinstein and Murray, filed in United States v. Hayes, another case urging a narrow interpretation of the Lautenberg Amendment. In Hayes, as in Castleman, the Court (by a 7-2 majority) rejected that narrow interpretation.
In her opinion for the Court in Hayes, Justice Ginsburg quoted Senator Lautenberg in pointing to the impetus for this law:
Existing felon-in-possession laws, Congress recognized, were not keeping firearms out of the hands of domestic abusers, because “many people who engage in serious spousal or child abuse ultimately are not charged with or convicted of felonies.” 142 Cong. Rec. 22985 (1996) (statement of Sen. Lautenberg). By extending the federal firearm prohibition to persons convicted of “misdemeanor crime[s] of domestic violence,” proponents of § 922(g)(9) sought to “close this dangerous loophole.” Id., at 22986.
Thanks to the decision in Castleman, that dangerous loophole will stay closed, and, I hope, more families will be spared the devastating consequences that can ensue from the toxic combination of domestic violence and firearms.