Supreme Court's First Post-Heller Gun Case Decided, In Favor of Gun Possession Prohibitions


Except that, while the case involved guns, it wasn't really a gun-rights case, at least not as presented to the Court. We can argue about the real issues that really underlay the whole thing, but courts have to deal with the specific legal issues presented to them by the parties and by lower courts.

Yesterday in the case of United States v. Hayes, the Supreme Court did indeed uphold a wide reading of a federal regulation that prohibits anyone convicted of a domestic violence charge from owning a gun. And that decision will ensure that more people remain legally prohibited from owning guns, with the Second Amendment not applicable.

Basically, what was at issue in Hayes is whether the statute under which you were arrested actually had to specifically state as an element of the crime that you had a domestic relationship with the victim, or was it enough that you actually did have such a relationship?

Most courts have said the latter; in an earlier appeal the 4th Circuit said the former, and overturned Hayes' 2005 conviction for possessing firearms after having been convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence in 1994 in West Virginia. The Supreme Court has now reversed the 4th Circuit.

From the Los Angeles Times' account:

In 1968, Congress made it illegal for felons to own a gun in the United States. Lawmakers in 1996 extended this ban to include those convicted of "a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence."

Until Tuesday, however, it had been unclear who is covered by this provision. Only about half the states have laws that make domestic violence a crime. Across the nation, prosecutors often charge offenders with an assault or battery.

Two years ago, the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the federal gun ban did not extend to state charges involving assault or battery. Randy Hayes, a West Virginia man, had challenged the federal law after he was convicted of illegal gun possession. He was found with three guns in his house in 2004. Ten years earlier, he had pleaded guilty to misdemeanor battery against his then-wife.

Ruling for Hayes, the appeals court said this "generic battery" conviction did not count as a "misdemeanor crime of domestic violence," and it freed him from the federal charges.

The Supreme Court overturned that ruling Tuesday in United States vs. Hayes and restored the broad view of the federal law. Ginsburg's opinion said the ban on gun ownership extends to any person who has been convicted of any crime involving "physical force or the threatened use of a deadly weapon," so long as there was a "domestic relationship" between the perpetrator and the victim.

Antonin Scalia and Chief Justice Roberts dissented. It's all argued on complicated technicalities of this variety, quoted from Roberts' dissent, and not at all on larger issues of political or legal philosophy. Quoted for truth!

The grammatical rule of the last antecedent indicates that the domestic relationship is a required element of the predicate offense. That rule instructs that "a limiting clause or phrase . . . should ordinarily be read as modifying only the noun or phrase that it immediately follows." Barnhart v. Thomas, 540 U. S. 20, 26 (2003). Pursuant to that rule, the "committed by" phrase in clause (ii) is best read to modify the preceding phrase "the use or attempted use of physical force, or the threatened use of a deadly weapon." See 482 F. 3d, at 754–755. By not following the usual grammatical rule, the majority's reading requires jumping over two line breaks, clause (i), a semicolon, and the first portion of clause (ii) to reach the more distant antecedent ("offense"). Due to the floating "that" after "offense," if "committed by" modified "offense" the text would read "offense that committed by."

Now, the Second Amendment and the underlying validity of cutting off an entire class of people from gun possession rights was not on the table in this technical case, though some newspaper headlines are talking about "Supreme Court upholding gun control laws." Kind of, but not really the point of the case. Because it's not at issue, neither the decision nor the dissent mention the Second Amendment or last year's Heller at all--and that's pretty much as it had to be.

It is worth remember that even as Heller defined the Second Amendment right as both existing and applying to individuals, it stated upfront how limited that right might end up being. As Scalia wrote in the Heller decision:

The Second Amendment right is not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose: For example, concealed weapons prohibitions have been upheld under the Amendment or state analogues. The Court's opinion should not be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.

Thus, even if Mr. Hayes' Second Amendment rights had been brought up in this case such that the Court had to consider it, it probably wouldn't have helped him much.

ScotusWiki has a good, but detailed and complicated, explanation of what specifically was at stake in Hayes and its history.

Read the full decision here. And check out Gun Control on Trial, my new book on the history of the Heller case and the Supreme Court's take on the Second Amendment