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Catholic bishops ask Supreme Court to uphold gun bans in domestic violence cases

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The U.S. Supreme Court should uphold a federal law that allows people under domestic restraining orders to be banned from carrying firearms, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has said in an amicus brief in a pending U.S. Supreme Court case.

“As the Church teaches, and this nation’s historical traditions demonstrate, the right to bear arms is not an unqualified license that must leave vulnerable family members to live in fear,” said the bishops’ Aug. 22 amicus brief. “Abused victims are precisely the people whom a just government is tasked with protecting. The Second Amendment does not stand as a barrier to their safety.”

The Supreme Court will hear the case U.S. v. Rahimi in its upcoming session in response to a lower court decision.

In May, a three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Zackey Rahimi, a Texas drug dealer with a violent history. The lower court vacated his conviction for illegal gun possession while under a domestic violence restraining order, Reuters reported. The court said the 1994 federal law Rahimi violated was not consistent with the Second Amendment and American traditions of law. People who are under domestic violence restraining orders do not lose their constitutional right to own firearms, according to the ruling.

The appellate court ruling was based on a new standard set in the June 2022 Supreme Court decision New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen, which said the U.S. Constitution protects an individual’s right to carry a handgun for self-defense outside the home. That ruling means that lower courts need to consider whether firearm regulations are consistent with the Second Amendment text and with U.S. history and tradition, according to Bloomberg News.

The U.S. bishops’ amicus brief stated that the bishops have an interest in U.S. v. Rahimi because they think it is particularly important to advance “the protection of the dignity and well-being of vulnerable and disadvantaged persons who live under threat of violence.”

According to the bishops’ brief, the federal law in question does not violate the precedent of the Supreme Court’s Bruen decision. The bishops’ brief said the federal law assumed that “uniquely dangerous individuals can lose their right to keep and bear arms” and added that this is a constitutional assumption. The brief argued that Congress has “legitimate authority to disarm those who have demonstrated — to the satisfaction of a juridical fact-finder — that they pose a unique danger to those close to them and to the common good.”

Restrictions on firearms “must be consistent with the nation’s historical tradition of such regulations” and this consistency “requires continuity of principles,” the brief said, summarizing the court precedent. The brief includes a consideration of how to engage with tradition, citing examples of Catholic history and the ideas of the development of Christian doctrine put forward by thinkers such as St. John Henry Cardinal Newman.

Regarding the American legal tradition of gun regulation, the brief said the Supreme Court “should clarify that the tradition as a whole is the point of comparison, not individual historical laws considered in a vacuum.”

The bishops’ brief objected that the Fifth Circuit’s decision wrongly interpreted tradition and history, and wrongly focused on contexts in which there was no support for legal intervention against domestic violence. Domestic violence victims have a claim on the state for protection, and their cause is not truly separate from protecting the social order against violent individuals.

The brief argued that the Fifth Circuit ruling failed to recognize the early American traditions of protecting wives from domestic abuse and failed to engage with the centuries of development in legal protections for domestic violence victims.

“Society developed a greater appreciation of the danger posed by intimate partner abusers and linking the once-‘private’ acts to public safety risks,” the brief said.

The Fifth Circuit ruling cited various reasons it is unconstitutional to disarm those accused of domestic violence. Surety laws, in which an accused person is allowed to post a bond, did not traditionally interfere with the accused’s right to carry weapons, according to the lower court. Laws against dangerous persons historically aimed to preserve the political and social order, not to protect an identified person against “domestic gun abuse.”

The bishops’ brief countered with historical examples showing that dangerous persons could be individually disarmed. The brief challenged the ruling’s distinction between protecting society as a whole and protecting individuals.

“The genuine protection of political and social order is not truly a separate aim from protecting the vulnerable individuals whose moral claim on society is most pressing,” the brief said.

The brief also challenged a concurring argument from a Fifth Circuit judge who said that victims of abuse may seek a restraining order on their own and do not need court intervention. The bishops’ brief noted that victims may be unable to afford filing fees or counsel and their finances may be controlled by their abusers.

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Catholic bishops ask Supreme Court to uphold gun bans in domestic violence cases