The Supreme Court is poised to decide whether those people frequently responsible for killing police, committing mass murders, and shooting their partners should have greater access to firearms. Today, the court heard arguments in U.S. v. Castleman, a challenge to a provision of the federal law that bans anyone who’s been convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor involving force from possessing a firearm. If the court agrees to narrow the definition of what “force” means, more people will be shot by their partners, more law enforcement personnel will be hurt, and we may be less likely to stop future mass killings.
The data show that domestic violence perpetrators use guns to threaten, kill, assault, and intimidate their partners. Guns are the most common weapon used in intimate partner homicides. What most of us don’t know is that these armed offenders are also responsible for 14 percent of the line-of-duty deaths of police officers and that domestic violence has been found to be linked to more than half of the mass shootings committed in the U.S. between 2009 and 2013. In a case-by-case study of incidents of shootings of four or more people that took place during that time, more than half the time the perpetrator killed their former or current intimate partner, as well as others present, both in homes and in public.
In 2009, federal agents prosecuted James Alvin Castleman for dealing arms on the black market. They also charged him with two counts of possessing a firearm in violation of the federal law that bars gun possession by a person convicted of a qualifying domestic violence misdemeanor. Back in 2001, Castleman pleaded guilty to having caused bodily injury to the mother of his child, a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence in Tennessee. So far so good: Federal law says a conviction for a domestic violence misdemeanor means no guns. Castleman was convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor so no guns.
Castleman disagrees. The question before the Roberts court is whether a misdemeanor conviction of domestic violence like Castleman’s bars him from obtaining a weapon under the federal law. The legal dispute boils down to which state domestic violence misdemeanors meet the federal requirement of a “domestic violence misdemeanor,” which involves the “use or attempted us of physical force.” The law was intended to track the state assault and battery laws, which usually punish either intentional forcible acts, or intentionally causing harm, or both. But Castleman contends that force alone is not enough; a statute would have to require “violent” force to qualify. The 6th Circuit agreed with him, concluding that bodily injury could only be caused by force, they meant “real” force—you know, the violent kind.
On appeal, both sides circle around Johnson v. U.S—a 2010 case that probed the meaning of “violent felony” under the Armed Career Criminal Act. Even though the court explicitly stated that its logic in Johnson should not be used to interpret the domestic violence misdemeanor language, Castleman feels it should apply to his case, which would add a “violence” requirement to the federal gun prohibition. Either way, federal courts have been divided on this question of whether the gun restriction applies to all domestic abusers convicted of a misdemeanor involving physical force—or merely those where the physical force is “strong” or violent.”
All this dancing on the head of the Johnson pin masks two under-recognized connections among armed domestic violence perpetrators: police officer deaths and mass shootings. If the Tennessee decision is allowed to stand, it will significantly reduce prosecutors’ ability to keep us all out of harms’ way.