The Supreme Court said Monday that people convicted of domestic abuse can be prevented from owning a gun, in a case that prompted the first questions from Justice Clarence Thomas in 10 years.
In a 6-to-2 decision, the court said Congress had intended to keep firearms out of the hands of domestic abusers.
The question for the court was whether the gun ban applies to those convicted under state law of misdemeanor domestic abuse and specifically whether assault convictions for “reckless” conduct could trigger the prohibition.
The relatively low-profile case attracted attention in February after Thomas broke his decade-long silence during oral arguments. Thomas’s questions of a government lawyer centered on the reach of the court’s 2008 decision declaring a Second Amendment right to individual gun ownership.
The case decided Monday was brought by two men, including Stephen Voisine, who was separately being prosecuted for killing a bald eagle. He had a prior conviction for a misdemeanor assault of a woman with whom he had a relationship, and federal prosecutors said that meant he should be banned from owning firearms.
He argued that Maine’s law did not require prosecutors to show that he intentionally used physical force, because the law also covered “reckless” behavior. That, he said, should not be enough grounds to elicit the federal ban.
The court rejected that argument, finding Monday that “a person who assaults another recklessly uses force no less than one who carries out that same action knowingly or intentionally,” according to the majority opinion by Justice Elena Kagan. She was joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer and Samuel A. Alito Jr.
To accept the interpretation of the petitioners, the majority said, would risk striking down similar laws in 34 states and the District and allowing “domestic abusers of all mental states to evade” the firearms ban.
Advocates for victims of domestic violence praised the ruling.
“There’s nothing more important than removing firearms from people who are known to have abused a family member,” said Joan S. Meier, legal director of the Domestic Violence Legal Empowerment Appeals Project. Seemingly minor acts, Meier said, are usually part of a “long-standing pattern of terror enforced through coercive control.”
In his dissent Monday, Thomas said the firearms ban should apply only to “intentional acts designed to cause harm” — not to those based on “mere recklessness,” which do not necessarily involve the use of physical force.
Thomas made the distinction between a person who intentionally throws a punch and someone who recklessly swings a baseball bat too close to another person.
“The majority fails to explain why mere recklessness in creating force — as opposed to recklessness in causing harm with intentional force — is sufficient,” he wrote.
Thomas was joined in part in his dissent by Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
Separately, he also objected to the imposition of a lifetime firearms ban based on a misdemeanor assault conviction because of its implications for a person’s Second Amendment rights.
“This decision leaves the right to keep and bear arms up to the discretion of federal, state and local prosecutors,” Thomas wrote. “We treat no other constitutional right so cavalierly.”
The majority’s interpretation, he wrote, “continues to relegate the Second Amendment to a second-class right.”
In oral arguments in February, his first questions in a decade were directed at Assistant Solicitor General Ilana H. Eisenstein: “Can you give me another area where a misdemeanor violation suspends a constitutional right?”
She said that Congress justified the ban because of studies showing that people who previously battered their spouses “pose up to a sixfold greater risk of killing, by a gun, their family member.”
Thomas’s comments came just two weeks after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. Both Thomas and Scalia had upbraided their colleagues for not taking other cases that would clarify the extent of a Second Amendment right to individual gun ownership, which was established in an opinion Scalia wrote in District of Columbia v. Heller.
Robert Barnes contributed to this report.