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Public Health Crises Intersect: Domestic Violence, Gun Rights, and Disadvantaged Groups in the US

The United States Supreme Court is set to hear a case concerning gun rights of people accused of domestic violence next year, which will test how far the court’s conservative majority is willing to expand gun rights, a pressing issue.


The case, United States v. Rahimi, was brought to court after Mr. Rahimi was convicted in Texas after violently assaulting his partner in a parking lot and possessing a firearm while under a domestic violence protective order (DVPO). The law Rahimi violated was created through the 1994 Violence Against Women Act, prohibiting people subject to DVPOs from owning firearms. Mr. Rahimi took his case to court on the grounds that his conviction violated his Second Amendment right to bear arms.


United States v. Rahimi comes in the wake of the 2022 case, New York State Rifle & Pistol Association, Inc. v. Bruen, in which the Supreme Court expanded gun rights, declaring New York’s law requiring a ‘proper cause’ licence to purchase a firearm unconstitutional, violating the Second Amendment. The case also notably required gun laws to be ‘consistent with the Nation’s historical tradition of firearm regulation’.


This precedent caused the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit to declare the 1994 law invalid, upholding Rahimi’s Second Amendment right. The Fifth Circuit reasoned that since there were no laws relating to domestic violence at the time of the constitution, Rahimi’s conviction violated New York State Rifle & Pistol Association, Inc. v. Bruen.


The issue that groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), have taken up with the Fifth Circuit’s decision is that at the time of the constitution, domestic violence, and gun violence for that matter, were not as prominent issues in public consciousness. The application of historical precedent to modern day lawmaking is unsensible. The ACLU argues that requiring a historical ‘twin law’ to uphold a law today is extremely dangerous as it impedes the government’s ability to protect people from newly recognised threats that weren’t around in the 1700-1800s.


The view of domestic violence was nowhere close to parallel to modern-day. Early American settlers based their laws off of Old-English Common law, which permitted wife-beating for correctional purposes. Alabama was the first state to rescind men’s legal right to wife-beating, and this was not until 1871, almost a century after the constitution was written. This era preceded the many women’s rights movements and laws passed that have brought the issue of domestic violence to where it is today. While domestic violence laws are up to state discretion and vary, every jurisdiction criminalises acts such as hitting, and many go further to treat domestic violence crimes as assault or battery. Additionally, the nationwide 1994 Violence Against Women Act outlined programs to further protect women from domestic violence, and established a national domestic violence hotline.


Today, domestic violence is condemned by the law, making it appear more prevalent. Guns have only exacerbated the issue. Nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by their partner, equating to around 10 million victims of domestic violence each year. Unfortunately, in the United States, guns are responsible for more than half of domestic violence related homicides. The United States v. Rahimi ruling could have detrimental impacts on victims’ safety, as siding with the Fifth Circuit enables domestic abusers access to these lethal weapons, and will likely contribute to more deaths.


During an oral argument early November, the Supreme Court seemed wary of allowing the Fifth Circuit’s ruling to stand. In the argument, it was made clear that domestic violence and guns are a lethal combination that threaten public safety, relieving some who feared justices would downplay the severity of domestic violence. However, the court’s 6-3 conservative majority has recently ruled in favour of the right to ‘keep and bear arms’, which begs the question if they will continue to back the Second Amendment.


The court upholding the Fifth Circuit’s ruling could have serious consequences for both women and marginalised groups in the United States. While domestic violence does affect both men and women in the United States, it is more likely to affect women. In 2021 more than a third of female homicide victims were killed by a spouse or partner, opposed to just 6 per cent of men. Access to firearms for domestic abusers would disproportionately affect women and put them in increased danger.


Additionally, the district court’s ruling sets a dangerous standard in regards to establishing protective laws. It decides that a ‘well-established and representative analogue’ is required to uphold a new law. No such analogue exists for many minoritised people due to historical oppression, as they have been marginalised and disregarded by the government when it comes to violence against them. A ruling in favour of Rahimi would further limit the protections and ability to create protections for women and groups beyond women. The court’s choice will ultimately make an important decision between safety versus arms, a debate that traces its origins to the establishment of the constitution and is extremely prevalent today.

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