Wednesday, February 25, 2009
Court upholds conviction in guns case
By MARK SHERMAN
The Associated Press
Tuesday, February 24, 2009; 2:52 PM
WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court on Tuesday affirmed the use of a
federal law barring people convicted of domestic violence crimes from
owning guns, the first firearms case at the high court since last
year's decision in support of gun rights.
The court, in a 7-2 decision, said state laws against battery need not
specifically mention domestic violence to fall under the domestic
violence gun ban that was enacted in 1996.
It is enough, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in her majority
opinion, that the victim of such a crime be involved in a domestic
relationship with the attacker.
"Firearms and domestic strife are a potentially deadly combination
nationwide," Ginsburg said.
Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Antonin Scalia dissented in the
case of Randy Edwards Hayes, a West Virginia man whose earlier
misdemeanor conviction for beating his wife gave rise to a federal
felony indictment for gun possession.
The federal government, gun control groups and women's rights
advocates worried that a ruling for Hayes would have weakened the
federal law because about half the states, including West Virginia, do
not have specific misdemeanor domestic violence laws.
"If the case had gone the other way, there are thousands of people who
currently are prohibited from buying guns who would have been allowed
to buy guns. Women in abusive situations would have been more at risk.
Police officers responding to domestic violence calls would have been
more at risk," said Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Center to
Prevent Gun Violence.
New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg, author of the 1996 law, said: "Since
it was enacted, my domestic violence gun ban has kept more than
150,000 guns out of the hands of domestic abusers. We know a gun in
the home makes it much more likely that domestic abuse results in
death and today's decision means we can continue keeping guns out of
dangerous hands and saving innocent lives."
The case turned on whether the conviction for domestic violence that
leads to the gun ban can be under a generic law against the use of
force. Or, must the state law be aimed specifically at spousal abuse
or domestic relationships.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., ruled in favor
of Hayes because the West Virginia state law on battery under which he
was convicted did not contain specific wording about a domestic
relationship between the offender and the victim.
Nine other appeals courts rejected that interpretation.
There was no dispute, however, that the victim in the 1994 crime was
Ten years later, police summoned to Hayes' home in response to a
domestic violence 911 call found a Winchester rifle belonging to
Hayes. They later discovered that he had possessed at least four other
rifles after the 1994 case.
He was indicted on federal charges of possessing firearms after the
conviction of misdemeanor domestic violence, a reference to the 1994
Excluding domestic abusers who are convicted under generic laws "would
frustrate Congress' manifest purpose," Ginsburg said. Lautenberg said
in 1996 that people who abuse their spouses and children often are not
charged with felonies or are allowed to plead to lesser crimes,
sometimes because relatives are unwilling to press more serious charges.
In dissent, Roberts said the federal law is ambiguous and that the
case should have been resolved in Hayes' favor. "Ten years in jail is
too much to hinge on the will-o'-the-wisp of statutory meaning pursued
by the majority," Roberts said.
People on both sides of the gun debate were watching the Hayes case to
see if it implicated the court's ruling last year that individuals
have a constitutional right to guns.
But there was no mention of District of Columbia v. Heller in either
the majority opinion or the dissent.
The case is U.S. v. Hayes, 07-608.
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