Supreme Court upholds federal gun ban for domestic abusers

Demonstrators outside Supreme Court building hold signs, one of which reads: Survivors over guns, safety over guns, peace over guns. Protect survivors, not guns.
Gun violence advocates seen demonstrating at the Supreme Court in November 2023. (Sarah Silbiger/Reuters)

In a big win for gun control advocates, the Supreme Court on Friday upheld a federal law that bans domestic abuse offenders from possessing a firearm. The vote was 8-1, with Justice Clarence Thomas dissenting.

United States v. Rahimi focused on the case of Zackey Rahimi, a Texas man with a history of domestic abuse. Rahimi violated a restraining order against him when he had a gun in his possession and tried to use it against his partner. A lower court said Rahimi could have a firearm, but the majority of Supreme Court justices disagreed and said Rahimi cannot possess a gun as a domestic violence offender.

Read the Supreme Court ruling here:

🧑‍⚖️ What the justices said

Chief Justice John Roberts authored the opinion, writing, “When a restraining order contains a finding that an individual poses a credible threat to the physical safety of an intimate partner, that individual may — consistent with the Second Amendment — be banned from possessing firearms while the order is in effect.”

“Since the founding, our nation’s firearm laws have included provisions preventing individuals who threaten physical harm to others from misusing firearms,” he added.

The case tested the limits of the Supreme Court’s 2022 decision in New York State Rifle & Pistol Assoc. v. Bruen, which expanded gun rights. Thomas wrote the opinion for that decision, ruling that gun restrictions have to be "consistent" with the historical tradition of firearm regulation.

In Thomas's dissenting opinion in the Rahimi case, he wrote, "Not a single historical regulation justifies the statute at issue." He added that "in the interest of ensuring the government can regulate one subset of society, today's decision puts at risk the Second Amendment rights of many more."

Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson argued in her concurring opinion about which era, exactly, should courts refer to when considering the historical tradition of gun regulation.

“Who is protected by the Second Amendment, from a historical perspective?” Jackson wrote: “I could go on — as others have. But I won’t.”

⬅️ How we got here

At the heart of the United States v. Rahimi case was what kind of restrictions the government could place on an individual's rights to bear arms. Rahimi had been placed under a restraining order after he assaulted his then girlfriend in 2019 and threatened to shoot her. The restraining order prevented him from possessing firearms and suspended his handgun license. Rahimi then violated the restraining order when he used a firearm in public five times over the course of two months. He was ultimately charged with violating a federal law for having a firearm in his possession while under the restraining order.

Rahimi appealed that decision to the Fifth Circuit Court, citing his Second Amendment rights. The court said that based on the Bruen decision, the Fifth Circuit ruled that Rahimi could have his gun and that prohibiting people with an order of protection against them was outside of what the government could do based on the Bruen decision.

That was appealed by the Biden administration and made its way to the Supreme Court.

🗣️ Reactions to the ruling

Advocates for domestic violence victims and gun control groups had called on SCOTUS to uphold the law and are welcoming the decision.

In recent years, guns have become the most commonly used weapon in murders of intimate partners, spouses, kids or family members, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states.

A woman is also five times more likely to be killed when her abuser can access a gun, according to Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun control advocacy group.

"The fact that the Court sided against gun rights extremists today is a huge win for gun safety and survivors all across the country, but we should not have been here in the first place," Everytown said following Friday's ruling.

Meanwhile, President Biden reaffirmed his administration's commitment to end violence against women. "No one who has been abused should have to worry about their abuser getting a gun," the statement said. "As a result of today’s ruling, survivors of domestic violence and their families will still be able to count on critical protections, just as they have for the past three decades."

🏛️ Recent gun rights issues

The Supreme Court's decision comes a week after the justices declared in a 6-3 decision that a Trump-era federal ban on bump stock attachments to firearms was unlawful.

The court found that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives overstepped its authority by enacting the ban on bump stocks when it determined that the devices were classified as machine guns. Civilians now have access to bump stocks again.