Our opinion: Domestic abusers should not possess firearms. Period.


You know it's really a no-brainer when every member of the often sharply divided Supreme Court of the United States comes down on the same side.

Early Wednesday morning, the court issued a unanimous decision in the case of James Castleman, a Tennessee man who pleaded guilty in 2001 to a misdemeanor offense of having "intentionally or knowingly cause(d) bodily injury" to the mother of his child.

Under federal law, because Castleman was convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence, he was prohibited from possessing firearms. In 2008, federal prosecutors accused Castleman of selling guns on the black market. A federal judge in the Sixth District dismissed the 2001 charge, finding Tennessee's definition of domestic violence includes anything from an abrasion to one requiring medical care.

In its unanimous decision the Supreme Court overturned the lower court's ruling.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, writing for the court, noted it was enough that Castleman pleaded guilty to having caused injury.

"Because Castleman's indictment makes clear that physical force was an element of his conviction, that conviction qualifies as a 'misdemeanor crime of domestic violence,'" Sotomayor wrote.

According to the Associated Press, the Obama administration had argued that the lower court decisions would effectively nullify the gun ban in dozens of states where misdemeanor domestic violence laws don't specify the degree of force needed for conviction. That would frustrate the intent of Congress, the administration argued, which was to keep firearms away from anyone found guilty of misdemeanor domestic violence.

According to a Violence Policy Center review of 2011 FBI crime data, 94 percent of female homicide victims were murdered by a male they knew, and 61 percent of those killers were a spouse or intimate acquaintance. Female intimate partners were more likely to be killed by a gun than any other weapon.

"The ruling could have significant implications in interpreting which state domestic violence laws bar gun possession," wrote Nicole Flatow for Think Progress. "State crimes dubbed ‘domestic violence' come with different definitions in different states. ... Castleman argued that the sort of ‘physical force' envisioned by the federal statute was more violent than that in the Tennessee statute to which he pled guilty, and therefore did not bar him from owning a gun under federal law."

"Indeed," wrote Sotomayor, quoting a Department of Justice report, "'most physical assaults committed against women and men by intimates are relatively minor and consist of pushing, grabbing, shoving, slapping, and hitting.' Minor uses of force may not constitute 'violence' in the generic sense. ... But an act of this nature is easy to describe as 'domestic violence,' when the accumulation of such acts over time can subject one intimate partner to the other's control. If a seemingly minor act like this draws the attention of authorities and leads to a successful prosecution for a misdemeanor offense, it does not offend common sense or the English language to characterize the resulting conviction as a ‘misdemeanor crime of domestic violence.'"

Sotomayor went on to note that the United States witnesses more than a million acts of domestic violence, and hundreds of deaths from domestic violence, each year.

"Domestic violence often escalates in severity over time, and the presence of a firearm increases the likelihood that it will escalate to homicide. Congress enacted (legislation), in light of these sobering facts, to 'close (a) dangerous loophole' in the gun control laws: While felons had long been barred from possessing guns, many perpetrators of domestic violence are convicted only of misdemeanors."

While to some, laws that prohibit the possession of firearms by those who have been convicted of or pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor offense of domestic violence might seem extreme, the reality is once a domestic abuser starts down the path of exercising his or her will over their partner, it's only a matter of time before that road ends with serious, if not fatal, consequences.

"Pushing, grabbing, shoving, slapping, and hitting" might be actions that come out unbidden in the heat of the moment but that doesn't make them any less injurious to psyche, soul or body. And if not punished for a momentary lack of reason, or for a deliberate act of aggression that doesn't legally meet the definition of a felony, the perpetrator might believe he or she is above the law.

A misdemeanor slap on the wrist might not be enough to convince an abuser to get help, but the threat of losing his or her guns might give them pause enough to stop that fist before it lands. It also makes sense to take weapons out of the hands of people who've proven they can't control their anger and end up hurting those closest to them. It's a small step, but it's step in the right direction.


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