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Supreme Court Rules Domestic Abusers Can Lose Their Gun-Ownership Rights

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled today in a 6-2 vote that domestic abusers convicted of misdemeanors can be barred from owning firearms.

The majority opinion, written by Justice Elena Kagan, concludes that misdemeanor assault convictions for domestic violence are sufficient to invoke a federal ban on firearms possession.

The plaintiffs in this case, Stephen Voisine and William Armstrong, both of Maine, had pleaded guilty in state court to misdemeanor assault charges after slapping or shoving their romantic partners. Several years later, each man was found to have firearms and ammunition in their possession in violation of a federal law affecting convicted domestic abusers.

Both argued that the weapons ban should not apply to them because their misdemeanor cases were for "reckless conduct" rather than intentional abuse.

Their appeal had been rejected by the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, but the plaintiffs carried it on to the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear it. Five justices concurred in Kagan's opinion, while Justice Clarence Thomas dissented and Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented in part.

Similar domestic abuse laws are now on the books in 34 states and the District of Columbia, triggering the federal weapons ban. But if the Supreme Court had ruled the other way today, that ban would no longer have applied in such cases.

The case, Voisine v. United States, had attracted attention in recent days because Congress has been in turmoil over efforts to tighten controls on firearms — especially to limit the number of people who can buy guns despite their past actions.

When argued in open court on Feb. 29, the case drew attention because Thomas asked questions in oral argument for the first time in a decade. He drew gasps when he asked several questions from the bench.

Thomas had asked the attorney defending the conviction of the two men whether any other misdemeanor conviction could cause a defendant the loss of "a constitutional right." Thomas has been known as a staunch defender of the Second Amendment guarantee of a right "to keep and bear arms."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.
Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.