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Supreme Court upholds federal ban on guns for domestic abusers

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld a federal ban on gun possession for anyone covered by a domestic violence court order. The 8-to-1 decision was the first major gun ruling since 2022 when the High Court broke with the way gun laws had been handled by the courts previously. The decision two years ago declared for the first time that in order for a gun law to be constitutional, it has to be analogous to a law that existed in the late 1700s. On Friday, the court majority seemed to be more flexible about where to draw that line. Joining us now to tell us more about all this is NPR's legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg. Nina, welcome.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Thanks for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: So what did the court decide?

TOTENBERG: The court held that when an individual has been found by a court to pose a credible threat to the physical safety of another person, the Second Amendment allows the individual to be temporarily disarmed. Writing for the court majority, Chief Justice John Roberts said, since the founding, our nation's firearm laws have included provisions preventing individuals who threaten physical harm to others from misusing firearms. The facts of this case fit comfortably within this tradition.

Now, the decision was the first major gun ruling, as you said, since 2022, when the court broke sharply with the way gun laws had previously been handled. So that decision declared for the first time that in order for a gun law to be constitutional, it has to be analogous to a law that existed at the time of the founding. But today, Chief Justice Roberts said some courts have misunderstood that method - the methodology of our recent Second Amendment case. These precedents were not meant to suggest a law trapped in amber. Otherwise, he explained, the Second Amendment would only provide protection for muskets and sabers.

MARTIN: How significant is this, Nina?

TOTENBERG: It's a victory for domestic violence advocates and for so-called sensible gun regulations. And it'll have some ripple effects. It may make some lower courts more hesitant to strike down laws aimed at preventing dangerous people from having guns. But I want to caution here that there are a bunch of concurring opinions today, three of them from the court's conservatives - Justices Kavanaugh, Barrett and Gorsuch - who express a range of reasons for joining the opinion. On one end is Justice Gorsuch, who expresses the most limited support. And on the other, Justices Barrett and Kavanaugh seem to be saying that the Chief Justice got it - it was a sort of a Goldilocks opinion - just right. Either way, you can read between the lines that for the court's conservatives, this was a relatively easy case. But it's not at all clear to me that the chief can pull another one of his conservative colleagues along with him for the raft of other cases that are coming down the pike in the wake of the 2022 Bruen decision.

MARTIN: So could you just back up for a second, Nina, and remind us about the facts of this case - this case?

TOTENBERG: Yeah, the defendant was Zackey Rahimi. He was something of a poster child for why Congress passed the law in 1994. He assaulted his girlfriend in a parking lot, threatened to shoot her if she told anyone, and after he realized that a bystander saw the assault, he fired a gun at the witness. Two months later, a Texas court granted her a protection order - protective order, suspended Rahimi's gun license and warned him that possession of a gun while the order remained in place is a federal felony.

But several justices observed during the oral argument in November that the Rahimi case was the easy case, while other harder cases lie ahead. Some of them are challenges to federal and state laws that bar convicted felons, including those convicted of nonviolent crimes, from having guns and state red-flag laws that allow family members and police to petition a judge for an emergency order to temporarily remove firearms from people who may harm themselves or others. There are lots and lots and lots of gun laws coming down the pike.

MARTIN: Now, you mentioned that the - several of the court's conservatives wrote concurring opinions. Justice Clarence Thomas, certainly a conservative member of the court, was the lone dissenter. What did he say, as briefly as you can?

TOTENBERG: He said - and here I'm quoting - "not a single historical regulation justifies the statute at issue" in this case.

MARTIN: That is NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg. Nina, thank you.

TOTENBERG: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.
Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
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