WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Tuesday affirmed the use of a federal law barring people convicted of domestic violence crimes from owning guns, the first firearms case at the high court since last year's decision in support of gun rights.
The court, in a 7-2 decision, said state laws against battery need not specifically mention domestic violence to fall under the domestic violence gun ban that was enacted in 1996.
It is enough, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in her majority opinion, that the victim of such a crime be involved in a domestic relationship with the attacker.
"Firearms and domestic strife are a potentially deadly combination nationwide," Ginsburg said.
Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Antonin Scalia dissented in the case of Randy Edwards Hayes, a West Virginia man whose earlier misdemeanor conviction for beating his wife gave rise to a federal felony indictment for gun possession.
The federal government, gun control groups and women's rights advocates worried that a ruling for Hayes would have weakened the federal law because about half the states, including West Virginia, do not have specific misdemeanor domestic violence laws.
"If the case had gone the other way, there are thousands of people who currently are prohibited from buying guns who would have been allowed to buy guns. Women in abusive situations would have been more at risk. Police officers responding to domestic violence calls would have been more at risk," said Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg, author of the 1996 law, said: "Since it was enacted, my domestic violence gun ban has kept more than 150,000 guns out of the hands of domestic abusers. We know a gun in the home makes it much more likely that domestic abuse results in death and today's decision means we can continue keeping guns out of dangerous hands and saving innocent lives."
The case turned on whether the conviction for domestic violence that leads to the gun ban can be under a generic law against the use of force. Or, must the state law be aimed specifically at spousal abuse or domestic relationships.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., ruled in favor of Hayes because the West Virginia state law on battery under which he was convicted did not contain specific wording about a domestic relationship between the offender and the victim.
Nine other appeals courts rejected that interpretation.
There was no dispute, however, that the victim in the 1994 crime was his then-wife.
Ten years later, police summoned to Hayes' home in response to a domestic violence 911 call found a Winchester rifle belonging to Hayes. They later discovered that he had possessed at least four other rifles after the 1994 case.
He was indicted on federal charges of possessing firearms after the conviction of misdemeanor domestic violence, a reference to the 1994 case.
Excluding domestic abusers who are convicted under generic laws "would frustrate Congress' manifest purpose," Ginsburg said. Lautenberg said in 1996 that people who abuse their spouses and children often are not charged with felonies or are allowed to plead to lesser crimes, sometimes because relatives are unwilling to press more serious charges.
In dissent, Roberts said the federal law is ambiguous and that the case should have been resolved in Hayes' favor. "Ten years in jail is too much to hinge on the will-o'-the-wisp of statutory meaning pursued by the majority," Roberts said.
People on both sides of the gun debate were watching the Hayes case to see if it implicated the court's ruling last year that individuals have a constitutional right to guns.
But there was no mention of District of Columbia v. Heller in either the majority opinion or the dissent.
The case is U.S. v. Hayes, 07-608.
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