High Court Upholds Conviction In Guns Case

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The Supreme Court upheld Tuesday the spirit of a federal law, making it harder for a domestic violence offender to possess a gun. The question was whether the gun ban imposed on such offenders applied when the state law they were convicted under did not only apply in domestic violence cases.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

A new ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court today. By a seven-to-two vote, it upheld a broad reading of a federal law banning guns for anyone convicted of domestic violence.

NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG: In 1996, Congress sought to plug a loophole in the federal firearms law by expanding the federal ban on gun possession to cover not just those convicted of felonies, but anyone convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence. For more than a decade, gun rights advocates have challenged the law in court, losing in all but one case.

That case involved Randy Hayes, a West Virginia man convicted of battery on his wife in 1994. Ten years later, when police again got a 911 domestic violence call from his home, they found a gun. Further investigation revealed more guns. And Hayes was charged with violating the federal law banning gun possession for those convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence. He was sentenced to probation and six months of home detention.

A federal appeals court in Richmond subsequently reversed his conviction, agreeing with gun advocates that the federal ban only applied to those specifically convicted of wife beating, not to those convicted of simple assault or battery when the victim happens to be a wife or other family member. But today, the U.S. Supreme Court disagreed and reinstated the Hayes conviction by a seven-to-two vote.

Announcing the court's opinion was Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, on her second day back at work after major cancer surgery. The meaning of the law is clear, she said. It is intended to make sure domestic abusers don't get guns. And she pointed to federal studies showing that the mere presence of a gun in the home of an abuser makes an abused woman at least six times more likely to be killed than other abused women.

She said that because most states charge domestic abusers under assault and battery statutes and do not have laws specifying domestic violence as a crime, requiring such a specific law to trigger the gun ban would frustrate Congress' manifest purpose here, and would have rendered the statute a dead letter from the moment of its passage.

NORRIS: It was striking that Justice Ginsburg, the only woman on the court, was the author of this opinion.

TOTENBERG: Daniel Vice filed a brief on behalf of major police organizations and the Brady Center.

NORRIS: She was the only one during oral argument who got to the heart of the matter, that domestic abusers were not being charged with felonies even when they committed serious crimes.

TOTENBERG: Dissenting today were Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Antonin Scalia. They said the wording of the statute is too ambiguous to allow what Roberts called the will-o'-the-wisp meaning accepted by the court majority.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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