United States Supreme Court Upholds Law Preventing Domestic Violence Offenders from Possessing Firearms in United States v. Rahimi

On June 21, 2024, the Supreme Court delivered a significant ruling in the case of United States v. Rahimi, upholding a federal law that bars individuals subject to domestic-violence restraining orders from possessing firearms. The court’s decision, rendered by an 8-1 vote, affirms that the law does not violate the Second Amendment, which protects the right to keep and bear arms. This ruling marks the court’s first Second Amendment case since its decision nearly two years ago in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen, which emphasized the need for historical precedent in upholding gun regulations.

The Context of United States v. Rahimi

The case arose from the actions of Zackey Rahimi, a Texas resident who, in 2020, was subjected to a civil protective order after a violent altercation with his then-girlfriend. Rahimi’s behavior, which included dragging his girlfriend back to his car and firing a gun at a bystander, led to the imposition of a protective order that explicitly prohibited him from possessing firearms. However, when police later searched Rahimi’s home in connection with a series of shootings, they discovered firearms, leading to charges against him for violating the federal law that restricts gun possession under domestic-violence restraining orders.

Rahimi challenged the law, arguing it infringed upon his Second Amendment rights. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit initially agreed, finding that the government failed to provide a historical precedent for such a restriction. The Supreme Court’s decision on Friday reversed this ruling, providing much-needed clarification on the application of Second Amendment jurisprudence.

The Supreme Court’s Rationale

Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, emphasized that the court’s previous Second Amendment cases, including Bruen, should not be interpreted to suggest that the law is fixed in historical practices from the 18th century. Instead, Roberts clarified that courts must determine whether modern regulations are “relevantly similar” to historical laws that were considered permissible by the founding generation.

Roberts highlighted that historical precedent does support restrictions on individuals who pose a threat to others. He pointed to early American and English laws that allowed courts to require individuals perceived as threats to post bonds or face punishment for threatening behavior. These historical laws, though not identical to the current federal ban, provide a sufficiently analogous foundation to justify the restriction in question.

Key Points from the Majority Opinion

Roberts noted several critical aspects of the federal law that align with historical practices:

  • The law targets individuals who pose a demonstrable threat of physical violence.
  • The restriction is imposed following a judicial determination that the individual presents a credible threat.
  • The intent of the law, similar to historical regulations, is to mitigate threats of physical violence.

The Chief Justice also criticized the 5th Circuit’s approach, which he felt misinterpreted the court’s directive in Bruen by seeking a “historical twin” rather than a “historical analogue.” Roberts argued that a proper application of the Bruen test should focus on whether modern laws serve similar purposes and impose comparable burdens as historical regulations.

The Dissenting Opinion

Justice Clarence Thomas, the lone dissenter, argued that the federal government failed to demonstrate that the firearm ban for individuals under domestic-violence restraining orders is consistent with historical traditions of firearm regulation. Thomas contended that the historical examples cited by the majority were not sufficiently analogous to support the current law. He expressed concern that the law allows the government to strip individuals of their Second Amendment rights without a criminal conviction, solely based on the existence of a protective order.

Thomas’s dissent underscored the ongoing debate about the extent to which historical precedent should influence modern gun regulations. He suggested that states have alternative means, such as prosecuting individuals for aggravated assault, to address threats without broadly infringing on constitutional rights.

Implications of the Ruling

The Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Rahimi reinforces the principle that modern firearm regulations can be upheld if they are rooted in historical traditions and serve similar purposes as past laws. This ruling provides clearer guidance for lower courts in applying Second Amendment jurisprudence, balancing the need for historical analogues with the realities of contemporary public safety concerns.

Conclusion

The decision in United States v. Rahimi affirms that the federal law barring gun possession for individuals under domestic-violence restraining orders is constitutionally sound. The ruling underscores the importance of historical context in evaluating Second Amendment cases while recognizing the need for regulations that address modern threats. As the legal landscape continues to evolve, this case marks a significant step in the ongoing effort to balance individual rights with public safety.

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