Supreme Court Decision Limits Batterers' Access to Guns
The Office on Violence Against Women (OVW) is pleased to share important news about a recent Supreme Court decision that will enhance the ability of federal prosecutors to keep guns out of the hands of batterers. On March 26, the Court unanimously ruled in United States v. Castleman that federal law makes it a crime for people convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence offenses, however minor, to possess guns.
In 1996, Congress enacted 18 U.S.C. §922(g)(9), sometimes called the Lautenberg Amendment, which bars any person convicted of a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” from possessing a gun. In passing this law, Congress closed a dangerous loophole in federal gun control laws: those convicted of felonies faced gun ownership prohibitions, but this did not cover most domestic abusers because most domestic violence convictions were for misdemeanor assault and battery. However, federal authorities have faced challenges enforcing this law because federal circuit courts were split on how severe the force used in a domestic violence offense needed to be to qualify as a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” under the federal statute.
In Castleman, the Supreme Court resolved this question by issuing a broad interpretation of the term “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence,” holding that convictions involving only “bodily injury” or “offensive touching” could qualify under the statute. Justice Sotomayor, writing for the majority, recognized that “‘[d]omestic violence’ is not merely a type of ‘violence’; it is a term of art encompassing acts that one might not characterize as ‘violent’ in a nondomestic context.” The Court further stated that, while a squeeze of the arm that causes a bruise may not be able to be described as “violence” in every context, “an act of this nature is easy to describe as ‘domestic violence,’ when the accumulation of such acts over time can subject one intimate partner to the other’s control.” With this decision, the Supreme Court confirms what we know all too well – that guns should not be in the hands of perpetrators of domestic violence.
Abusers use guns to control their partners through intimidation, threats, coercion, and injury. But most startling are the statistics we know about domestic violence homicides. We know that women in abusive relationships are six times more likely to be killed when there is a gun in the house. We know that on average three women are killed every day in the United States by a current or former partner, and women killed by their intimate partners are more likely to be killed with a gun than by all other methods combined. We also know that limiting access to guns saves lives – in the states that require a background check with every handgun sale, there are 38% fewer women killed by guns than in states that do not.
We appreciate that the Supreme Court recognized the power and control dynamics that put victims of domestic violence in danger, particularly when coupled with access to guns. It is heartening to read the decision and realize how far our society has moved in taking seriously the issue of domestic violence. For this, we owe our gratitude to those who have labored so hard and long to move public opinion, including those national and state organizations that, in a persuasive amicus brief, urged the Court to adopt a common-sense definition of domestic violence: the National Network to End Domestic Violence, the National Domestic Violence Hotline, the Domestic Violence Legal Empowerment and Appeals Project, Legal Momentum, and a host of state domestic violence coalitions. We look forward to continuing to work together to make our country a safer place for all victims and survivors.
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The Violence Against Women Act, first authorized in 1994, creates and supports comprehensive, effective and cost-saving responses to domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking. VAWA expired in December 2011 and must be reauthorized by Congress to ensure the continuation of lifesaving programs.
S. 1925 as passed by the Senate on April 26, 2012 was carefully crafted with new provisions based on interviews with more than 2000 law enforcement, court personnel, prosecutors, legal services, state and federal grant administrators and advocates from across the country. Twenty-two issue committees were convened to work through the responses and prioritize the most important issues still facing victims, including a lack of available services to LGBTQ victims, barriers to services for undocumented victims, and continuing high levels of violence against Native American and Native Alaskan victims. The Senate legislation was drafted in consultation with federal agencies charged with implementing the provisions of VAWA. The resulting legislation, S.1925 built on the past successes of VAWA, decreased the total amount of federal authorization levels by 20% and streamlined 10 programs into three.
The House version (HR 4970) passed on May 16 rolling back existing programs, included a number of harmful provisions and undermined the core principles of VAWA. These provisions include involving the abuser in the VAWA self-petition process and allowing investigators to gather information and interview the abuser. The single point of contact for VAWA self-petitioners, now located in Vermont, would be spread out across the country, losing the expertise and expeditious process that has been developed. The bill makes U Visas for crime victims ineffective as it provides only a small number of victims to achieve legal status as their offender must be convicted and deported (some offenders are US citizens). The House version eliminates the provision in the Senate bill that required US marriage brokers to tell clients if the potential spouse was subject to a protection order and eliminated penalties for lying about a criminal history.
The House version of the bill eliminated the Senate provision that would have provided concurrent authority and allowed Tribal government to prosecute non-Indian offenders for domestic violence, dating violence and protection order violations when the criminal act occurred on Tribal land while ensuring the same rights of due process, right to counsel, and jury and the right of appeal. Currently the state courts have no jurisdiction on tribal land, the tribal courts have no jurisdiction over non tribal individuals and federal courts are not prosecuting misdemeanor crimes.
The bill would also require the auditing of a much greater number of VAWA funded programs each year by the federal government, possibly up to 2000 each year, thus greatly expanding federal government.