In Maine in 2009, Stephen Voisine was arrested for shooting a bald eagle. Six years earlier, Voisine had been convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor charge after slapping his girlfriend. Two years later, Voisine was convicted of assaulting her again, and as a result, he was not legally allowed to own a gun in the state of Maine. But under a federal law called the Lautenberg Amendment, if someone is caught with a gun after a domestic violence misdemeanor conviction, that person will face up to ten years in prison.
William Armstrong III was also convicted of assaulting his wife in Maine. In fact, he was twice found in violation of Maine’s misdemeanor domestic violence assault statute – in 2002 and again in 2008. In 2010, when the police in Maine searched Armstrong’s home for drugs and instead found ammunition, they later linked that ammo to guns Armstrong had transported to a friend’s house. Armstrong was also charged with violating the federal statute that makes it a crime for a person convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence to possess a firearm.
Earlier this year, Voisine, Armstrong, and their attorneys took their cases to the United States Supreme Court. Lawyers for the two say they should never have lost their gun rights to begin with. The lawyers insist that impulsive acts of misdemeanor domestic violence are not serious enough to disqualify the men under the Lautenberg Amendment from their constitutional right to gun ownership.
PRECISELY WHAT WILL THE SUPREME COURT DECIDE?
Instead, according to Voisine’s and Armstrong’s attorneys, only intentional, purposeful, violent acts should result in the loss of gun rights under federal law. The question now before the Supreme Court is simply this: Does a misdemeanor crime that requires only a showing of recklessness qualify as a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence under the Lautenberg Amendment?
If the court sides with the two men, it’s possible that only the perpetrators of the most egregious kinds of domestic violence would lose their gun rights in the future. Domestic violence activists call this a dangerous scenario, and a number of women’s groups and gun control activists have filed friend-of-the-court briefs urging the justices to uphold the gun ban. Gun Owners of America has also filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the Supreme Court. That group argues that the Lautenberg Amendment unfairly targets the right to bear arms because nowhere in the law is any other constitutional right denied to an individual as the result of a misdemeanor conviction.
The Lautenberg Amendment to the Gun Control Act of 1968, which became federal law in 1996, makes it a felony for those convicted of misdemeanor crimes of domestic violence to ship, transport, possess, or receive firearms or ammunition. In their amicus brief, Gun Owners of America states, “As a preexisting right, the right to keep and bear arms ought to enjoy the same stature as other inalienable rights, most notably, the freedoms of religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition.”
ARE DOMESTIC ABUSERS “SLIPPING” THROUGH LEGAL CRACKS?
When Congress approved the Lautenberg Amendment, convicted felons were already barred from gun ownership, but Congress was responding to the many domestic abusers who “fall through the cracks.” Domestic abusers convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence were forbidden at that time to own guns because a majority in the Congress believed that most misdemeanor domestic violence convictions were the result of plea bargains and that in many of these cases, the original charges were violent felonies.
Lawyers for Voisine and Armstrong are arguing that the gun ban should only apply to people who actually form the intent to hurt their domestic partners and not those who just act recklessly or impulsively. However, as the government lawyers point out, in most states, assault and battery laws lump crimes committed recklessly together with crimes committed intentionally and without making any legal distinction.
In Maine, for example, a person can be convicted of assault if he or she “intentionally, knowingly or recklessly cause bodily injury or offensive physical contact to another person.” Many states have laws that use similar language. It’s important to note that reckless acts are not legally defined as “accidental” acts. Under the law in Maine, someone who acts recklessly “consciously disregards a risk that the person’s conduct will cause such a result.”
IS THE LAUTENBERG AMENDMENT TOO VAGUE?
The government’s position is that the federal gun ban on domestic abusers was plainly meant to include “reckless” acts of violence. However, Supreme Court justices may decide that the language in the Lautenberg Amendment is vague, and if they do, the federal charges against Voisine and Armstrong will be dismissed. The Supreme Court always requires statutes to be written with specificity and precision, and any law that is written too broadly and comes before the Supreme Court will probably be restricted.
According to Forbes, in all likelihood, a divided Court will affirm the First Circuit Court’s decision against Voisine and Armstrong, and if there’s a 4-4 split, the lower court’s ruling is upheld. In that event, Voisine and Armstrong will have to stand trial on the federal charge, and they will probably be convicted. It’s a controversial case that pits feminists and domestic abuse activists against gun owners, and both sides are well-known for their loud and sometimes shrill styles of activism and advocacy.
According to the Huffington Post, state-level gun laws that make it more difficult for convicted domestic abusers to obtain firearms are proven to save innocent lives. One study cited by the Post, for example, found that state laws restricting firearms access for people subject to domestic protective orders were associated with a 25 percent lower rate of gun-related domestic partner homicides.
HOW DOES THE STATE OF WASHINGTON DEAL WITH GUN VIOLENCE?
Finding solutions to gun violence is a perennial problem for lawmakers in D.C. and in each state capital. Every state, including the state of Washington, has a concealed carry law and a number of gun violence laws. Washington has also been finding and pioneering alternative and innovative ways to deal with gun violence. In 2014, for example, the state enacted a law requiring universal background checks for all gun sales, including those between private citizens.
New statistics recently released by the FBI shows that the state’s 2014 law has blocked about fifty gun purchases attempted by felons in the state of Washington since it went into effect. Obviously, anyone who is accused of violating one of Washington’s many complicated gun and weapons laws will need to seek the legal advice and services of a Seattle criminal defense attorney.
Most of the women who are homicide victims in the United States are killed by boyfriends, husbands, or exes, and most of those homicides are committed with guns. The Supreme Court’s decision in the case involving Voisine and Armstrong will be announced this summer or possibly earlier. Anyone with questions about the state of Washington’s gun laws should contact their state representative in Olympia or speak to a Seattle criminal defense attorney to learn more.