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High Court Considers Definition Of Domestic Violence In Gun Case

Law enforcement, domestic violence organizations and gun control groups won an important victory in the U.S. Supreme Court Wednesday.

The justices ruled unanimously that people convicted of minor domestic violence offenses are barred under federal law from possessing a gun, even though some states do not require proof of physical force for conviction on domestic violence charges.

James Alvin Castleman challenged his federal indictment for illegal gun possession. Backed by gun rights groups, he contended that his previous Tennessee conviction for misdemeanor domestic violence was not serious enough to disqualify him from possessing a gun because state law did not require proof of physical force.

The Supreme Court rejected the argument. Writing for the court, Justice Sonia Sotomayor acknowledged that minor uses of force may not constitute "violence" in the generic sense. But, she said, context is everything in domestic violence cases. Thus, a squeeze that causes a bruise to the arm may not normally be described as violence but "an act of this nature is easy to describe as 'domestic violence' when the accumulation of such acts over time can subject one's intimate partner to the other's control."

And if a "seemingly minor act like this draws the attention of authorities and leads to a successful prosecution for a misdemeanor offense," she continued, it qualifies as a crime of domestic violence.

In a concurring opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia agreed with the ruling in Castleman's case, but took issue with Sotomayor's broader definition of physical force.

The court's ruling Wednesday is considered important because many states, like Tennessee, have domestic violence misdemeanor laws that make it a crime to threaten or cause bodily injury, without proof of physical violence. Sotomayor noted that "domestic violence often escalates in severity over time, and the presence of a firearm increases the likelihood that it will escalate to homicide. That was the rationale for Congress passing the law making it a crime for anyone convicted of domestic violence to possess a gun.

"The U.S. Supreme Court's ruling is an important victory for women, children and families across the country who thankfully will continue to be protected" by this law, said Jonathan Lowy, director of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. "It is a telling indictment of the gun lobby's extremism that not a single justice agreed with its call to explode a gaping hole" in the federal law aimed at preventing domestic abusers from buying and possessing guns.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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.