Justices Uphold Ban On Guns for Abusers

By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Supreme Court yesterday affirmed federal efforts to bar those convicted of crimes involving domestic violence from owning guns.

It was the court's first decision concerning gun rights since last year's landmark decision recognizing an individual's Second Amendment right to own a firearm. But the 7 to 2 decision authored by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg contained nary a word about Heller v. District of Columbia, which struck down Washington's ban on handguns.

Instead, justices wrangled over language and whether Congress's decision to ban firearms to those convicted of "a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence" extended to someone convicted of a generic charge of battery, so long as there was a proven domestic relationship between the offender and the victim.

Ginsburg said Congress might have been inartful in drafting the 1996 law, but its intentions and underlying concerns were clear: "Firearms and domestic strife are a potentially deadly combination nationwide."

Ginsburg was citing the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence in that passage, and its president, Paul Helmke, said the ruling is "the right one for victims of domestic abuse and to protect law enforcement officers who are our first responders to domestic violence incidents."

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), who sponsored the 1996 amendment to the federal Gun Control Act, said it had kept 150,000 domestic abusers nationwide from obtaining guns.

The question was whether gun ownership was barred because someone had been convicted of a generic law against the use of force, or whether the law in question must specifically have as an element that the victim was in a domestic relationship with the aggressor.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit said it was the latter. It threw out the conviction of Randy Edward Hayes, who had been convicted of battery on his then-wife in 1994. Ten years later, police responding to a domestic violence call about Hayes and his girlfriend found firearms in the home and indicted Hayes.

Hayes said that the 1994 battery conviction did not trigger the federal ban on firearms, because it was not specifically on the charge of domestic violence.

But nine other circuits around the country had read the law the other way, and Ginsburg said they were right. Fewer than half the states have laws that specifically denominate domestic violence as an element of a crime.

Excluding domestic abusers convicted under generic battery laws "would frustrate Congress's manifest purpose," Ginsburg said in announcing her decision from the bench. Congress would not have enacted something that "would have been a dead letter in the majority of states from the very moment of its passage."

But Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., joined by Justice Antonin Scalia, said that the law's ambiguous wording makes it a "textbook case for application of the rule of lenity" and that the case should be decided in Hayes's favor.

"Ten years in jail is too much to hinge on the will-o'-the-wisp of statutory meaning pursued by the majority," Roberts complained. Like Ginsburg, he did not mention the Heller ruling in his dissent.

The case is United States v. Hayes.

In a separate decision, the justices said a state may order cities, counties and school districts to forbid payroll deductions for a union's political activities, something unions had challenged as a violation of their First Amendment rights.

"The First Amendment prohibits government from 'abridging the freedom of speech; it does not confer an affirmative right to use government payroll mechanisms for the purpose of obtaining funds for expression," wrote Roberts, who was joined by Scalia, Ginsburg and Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr.

Justices John Paul Stevens and David H. Souter dissented in the case from Idaho. Souter wrote that he thought the state's "legislative objective was not efficient, clean government, but that unions' political viewpoints were its target, selected out of all the politics the state might filter from its public workplaces."

Justice Stephen G. Breyer said he would have sent Ysursa v. Pocatello Education Association back to lower courts for more fact-finding.

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