Earlier this week the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case of Volstein vs. United States, a case where two individuals convicted of misdemeanor crimes had their gun rights permanently revoked. The case centered around the prohibition on people convicted of “domestic abuse” from possessing firearms or ammunition. On the surface, the prohibition seems to makes sense — if we’re going to keep guns out of the hands of “dangerous” people, then surely someone who beats their spouse is a prime candidate. But what if that conviction wasn’t for intentional harm, but instead accidental? What if the convicted person never intentionally harmed their significant other? That’s the basis for the argument before the Court now . . .
The case centers around two individuals convicted of assault on their significant others in the state of Maine. Both men plead guilty at the time, but later were arrested after being found in possession of firearms and ammunition, a violation of the federal statute. Both men decided to fight the new federal charge, citing the fact that the Maine statute is vague in its definition of “battery” and whether that matches with the federal definition.
Voisine and Armstrong’s argument boils down, then, to an assertion that the common law of battery did not recognize the concept of a “reckless” use of physical force – and if there is ambiguity about this, then the doctrines of “lenity” and “constitutional doubt” require the Court to interpret the federal statute as not including “reckless” domestic assault convictions. Because the Maine statute allows such “reckless” convictions as a possibility, and because the categorical approach says the Court cannot look at the actual facts of Voisine’s or Armstrong’s convictions, they argue that their prior convictions can’t be used. Thus, they say, their federal “domestic abuser in possession” charges should be dismissed.
At its core, their argument is one of semantics and legal jiggery pokery. The more interesting question raised in this case came from Justice Clarence Thomas who hasn’t asked a question during oral arguments of a case in over ten years.
“This is a misdemeanor violation,” Thomas said at one point to Eisenstein. “It suspends a constitutional right—Can you give me another area where a misdemeanor violation suspends a constitutional right?” he asked.
The Supreme Court decided to hear the case based on intricate and annoyingly confusing legal issues, but Justice Thomas seems to be steering the case back to the more important Second Amendment roots of the question. Should a misdemeanor violation — a violation on the same general level as a parking ticket — permanently disqualify someone from exercising a Constitutionally protected civil right?
Over the last few decades the concept behind gun control legislation has been to “keep guns out of the wrong hands.” To try and predict which kinds of people would be most likely to harm others and deny them this Constitutionally protected right in the greater interest of public safety. Most Americans seem to support this concept, as evidenced by the strong support for background checks for firearms purchases.
The question that Justice Thomas raises is where exactly that line is drawn. With gun control measures like “gun violence restraining orders” being issued in California based sometimes on zero evidence whatsoever, do situations like these do more to keep Americans safe or trample the rights of citizens?
We probably won’t get an answer to the more interesting questions this time around. The court seems to be focusing on the dry legal challenge instead of the larger, juicier philosophical issues. That said, it looks like Justice Thomas might be trying to help fill the jurisprudential void left by Justice Scalia.