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.
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