Domestic violence is no joke and those convicted of domestic violence crimes can be banned from ever owning a firearm. For firearm enthusiasts and legal scholars alike, the problem comes not in the crime, but in the definition of the crime. In some states it requires physical contact. In others, if the police show up to a domestic violence call—even if it was for nothing more than raised voices—the law requires that at least one party must be taken into custody and charged.
This law may deter crimes or serious abuse. It can also wrongly result in the suspension of the right to own a firearm based on someone raising nothing more than his or her voice. As is true of most laws, there needs to be a finding of facts and a judgment based on the seriousness of the act. However, this matter concerns a 1996 Federal law that bans shipment, transport, ownership and use of guns or ammunition by individuals convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence, or who are under a restraining (protection) order for domestic abuse in all 50 states.
The law was passed as an amendment to the H.R. 3610 Omnibus Consolidated Appropriations Act of 1997. On September 30, 1997, President Clinton hailed the passing, citing bipartisan support during a speech regarding the signing of the Act. Among the achievements he touted in the Act was the extension of the Brady Bill.
The Achilles’ heel to the bill could be that the states do not have a unified definition of domestic violence. James Castleman from Tennessee pled guilty to one count of misdemeanor domestic violence. In 2009, Castleman was found to be in possession of various guns and was charged with “illegal possession of a firearm by a person convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence.”
Then, Castleman challenged the conviction and in September 2012, a U.S. Appeals court in Ohio overturned the conviction, ruling the federal weapons law did not apply in Castleman’s case. The court ruled the standard for conviction in the case was too low. The Tennessee domestic assault law does not require physical force as an element of the crime.
This led to the U.S. Supreme Court agreeing to hear the case next January. If successful, it could open gun ownership to some individuals convicted of domestic violence. Not surprisingly, the Obama administration has vowed to fight the ruling. The administration’s reasoning is that if the Appeals’ court decision were allowed to stand, it would render the law “largely inoperative,” since the definition of domestic violence varies widely between states.