By Andrew Chung
(Reuters) – When a New Orleans-based appeals court struck down a federal law aimed at protecting victims of domestic violence from firearms – a matter that the U.S. Supreme Court takes up on Tuesday – Phil Sorrells, the conservative gun-owning Tarrant County district attorney in Texas, disagreed.
“When they’re involved in this intimate partner violence, they don’t need to have access to weapons that are going to ramp up this violence even more,” Sorrells said in an interview. “We think that this is a small restriction on your rights that’s justified.”
The law at issue makes it a crime for a person under a domestic violence restraining order to have a gun. The case represents the latest major gun rights dispute to be argued before the Supreme Court, whose 6-3 conservative majority has taken an expansive view of the right to “keep and bear arms” under the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment.
A Texas man named Zackey Rahimi, who according to court records was the subject of such an order after assaulting his girlfriend in Tarrant County and pleaded guilty to violating the law, has challenged it as a Second Amendment violation.
In a nation bitterly divided over how to address firearms violence, Republicans and conservatives typically want fewer gun restrictions while Democrats and liberals often promote gun control. And in this case, many gun rights groups and conservative or libertarian legal scholars support Rahimi’s challenge, while many liberal and gun safety organizations oppose it.
But the case has also scrambled these assumptions a bit.
Sorrells, for instance, is a conservative Republican who filed a brief supporting the law. Meanwhile, some public defenders, who represent indigent clients and often embrace liberal causes such as combating racial injustice in policing and sentencing, have urged the justices to strike it down. Rahimi is represented by a public defender.
“This particular case involves a range of issues – from the right to keep and bear arms to over-criminalization, to things in between – that is really challenging people’s worldviews,” University of Wyoming law professor and gun rights expert George Mocsary said. “You’re getting this kind of wide-scale questioning of fundamental beliefs, and of how to deal with conflicting beliefs, from all across the political and ideological spectrum.”
The Supreme Court will hear an appeal by President Joe Biden’s administration of a ruling by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that the law violates the Second Amendment in light of a 2022 ruling by the justices that set a stringent new test to determine the legality of gun restrictions.
Sorrells, a Republican who won election as district attorney with former President Donald Trump’s endorsement, called the 5th Circuit’s decision wrong because the Second Amendment, like other constitutional rights, is not absolute.
The 5th Circuit based its decision on the Supreme Court’s ruling called New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen ruling, which required that gun laws be “consistent with the nation’s historical tradition of firearm regulation” in order to survive a Second Amendment challenge.
Biden’s administration has said the law should survive because of the long tradition in the United States of taking guns from people deemed dangerous. It also emphasized that a gun’s presence gun substantially increases the chances that a domestic violence incident turn deadly.
Rahimi was charged after police found guns in his possession while he was under a domestic violence restraining order after he assaulted his girlfriend in a parking lot, dragging her and later threatening to shoot her, court papers showed.
The case has attracted dozens of briefs seeking to sway the justices. Some – but not all – groups of public defenders urged the justices to invalidate the law, arguing that restraining orders that disarm their clients are often too easily obtained and procedurally unfair for defendants.
Some public defender groups also supported the Bruen ruling because it toppled a New York gun regulation they argued primarily targeted Black and Hispanic people.
University of Michigan Law School professor Eve Brensike Primus said while some people might be surprised that public defenders would argue against taking guns from people under restraining orders, they are seeking to ensure that an expanded Second Amendment applies to their clients “and not just the people who have wealth or who are privileged.”
“You could look at it and say that’s not ‘progressive’ of them. But in a way it very much is, and it’s in line with the anti-carceral mission that a lot of public defender offices have,” added Primus, who runs a public defender training institute.
Vigorous defenses of the law have been made in briefs by some prosecutors like Sorrells as well as former state chief justices including two appointed by Republican Texas governors.
“All I’m saying in filing this is, ‘Look, don’t take this out of my toolbox,'” Sorrells said. “This is a great tool that we can use to keep people in our community safe against violent offenders.”
(Reporting by Andrew Chung in New York; Editing by Will Dunham)