U.S. Supreme Court to Decide Gun Ban Case

The Supreme Court of the United States has agreed to hear a case that will define the scope of the Lautenberg Amendment, a federal law that prohibits individuals convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence from possessing a firearm. The Court will clarify which convictions fall under this federal prohibition, and the decision could restore the firearm rights of many people currently under a lifetime ban.

Federal law makes it a crime for any person convicted of a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” to possess a firearm. The phrase “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” is defined to include any federal, state, or tribal misdemeanor offense, committed by a person with a specified domestic relationship to the victim, that “has, as an element, the use or attempted use of physical force, or the threatened use of a deadly weapon.”

In 2001, James A. Castleman pled guilty to a misdemeanor domestic assault charge in Tennessee for intentionally or knowingly causing bodily injury to the mother of his child. As a result of that plea, he was subsequently charged with illegal possession of firearms in violation of the Lautenberg Amendment in 2009. He contested the indictment, claiming that he was not convicted of using physical force in his domestic assault case.

Castleman Case Could Return Firearm Rights to Many

The Supreme Court will determine the meaning of the term “use of physical force” as it applies to the Lautenberg Amendment. In a different context, the Supreme Court has interpreted the “use of physical force” as the use of “violent force . . . capable of causing physical pain or injury to another person,” a characterization that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit applied in this case.

The Sixth Circuit ruled that Castleman’s conviction did not qualify as a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence for the Lautenberg Amendment, because the statute of which he was convicted did not require proof of a serious physical injury and the indictment did not specify the type or severity of injury. Therefore, the “bodily injury” could be a result of conduct that cannot be described as violent.

Attorney Mathew Higbee says that the Sixth Circuit’s interpretation of the law makes sense. “The reality is that a large percentage of convictions classified as domestic violence come from acts that did not involve any violent force or threat of it. The legislative intent of the amendments to the Violence Against Women Act shows that Congress was concerned about actual violence— not the myriad of non-violent acts that result in people pleading guilty of or being found guilty of a crime of misdemeanor domestic violence.”

The government’s position is that any misdemeanor assault conviction against a domestic partner is a disabling offense under the Lautenberg Amendment. If the Supreme Court affirms the Sixth Circuit’s opinion, a large number of domestic violence convictions would no longer be disabling. A domestic assault conviction would have to be based on the use of actual, physical violence before it falls under the federal law; threats, coercion, and anything absent violent force would no longer count.

Oral arguments in the case of United States v. Castleman are expected to be scheduled in January of 2014.

If you enjoyed this article, similar articles can be found on our expungement law blog.

If you want to know more about record expungement, check our expungement knowledge base.

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4 Responses to U.S. Supreme Court to Decide Gun Ban Case

  1. Shelly F. Marks says:

    Federal law makes it illegal for a person to possess a gun after having been “convicted in any court of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence.” 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(9) . A “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” is a misdemeanor that “has, as an element, the use or attempted use of physical force, or the threatened use of a deadly weapon, committed by” a person with one of several specified relationships to the victim. 18 U.S.C. § 921(a)(33) . In North Carolina, the most common misdemeanor charges used in domestic violence cases are simple assault and assault on a female. Is a person convicted of one of those crimes as a result of domestic violence prohibited from possessing a gun?

    • Mathew Higbee says:

      The answer really depends on whether or not the other elements of the federal definition are met. The inquiry is fact specific and does not rest the label of the offense.

  2. Dave says:

    If the decision goes in favor of Castlman, does that mean that the Fed ban will be lifted for those with misdemeanor DV convictions or are they going to look at each individual convicted case by case?

    Next question
    Instead of expungement, can an old misdemeanor DV conviction be reduced to a lesser crime?

    • Jenna Thorne says:

      Hi Dave, the Federal ban would most certainly not be lifted for all those with misdemeanor DV convictions, but rather they are going to have to look at the specifics of each case. This will vary between states and the court will have to look to the definitions of the specific offenses and the elements that are required for a conviction to determine which offenses should be covered by the federal ban. As to your other question, it will also depend on state law whether an old misdemeanor DV conviction can be reduced to a lesser crime. Typically in most cases that would not be an option, as that is something that would be done prior to entering a plea, but you should contact a criminal defense attorney in your state to determine if that is an option available in your specific case.

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