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Closing Argument

Supreme Court Takes on Gun Cases as State Laws Shift

The court is considering the safety of victims of domestic violence, bump stocks and more.

A woman, wearing a blue "March for Our Lives" shirt and black blazer, holds a sign that reads, "If my domestic abuser had a gun, I'd be dead." Standing to her left is a person holding a sign that reads, "Disarm domestic violence."
Demonstrators at a gun control rally in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 7, calling on the U.S. Supreme Court to disarm people under domestic violence restraining orders, as arguments are heard in the case of United States v. Rahimi.

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This week, the Supreme Court heard arguments in a gun rights case that could make domestic abuse victims more vulnerable to gun violence. U.S. v. Rahimi centers around the constitutionality of a 1994 law that makes it a crime for anyone under a domestic violence restraining order to possess or purchase a firearm.

Opponents of the law, including the National Rifle Association, argue that it denies people who have not been found guilty of a crime their constitutional right to bear arms. Supporters of the law counter that guns are an urgent safety risk to domestic violence victims — mostly women — who are five times more likely to die from domestic abuse when their partner has access to a firearm, according to one study.

Numerous observers concluded that the court is unlikely to overturn the law, based on the questioning by most — though not all — of the justices during oral argument.

If the court were to overturn the law, it wouldn’t just be intimate partners at risk for increased violence. Gun violence is now the leading cause of accidental death for children and teens in the U.S., surpassing car accidents. According to a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control, about 12% of youth gunshot victims are killed when “a child was in the line of fire of one partner shooting and killing the other.”

For every child who dies from gun violence, more survive with physical and emotional scars. Another recent study found that gun violence victims ages 19 and under are 68% more likely than other kids to have a psychiatric diagnosis and 144% more likely to develop substance use disorder. “People who die, they get funerals and balloon releases,” youth gun violence survivor Oronde McClain told Kaiser Health News. “Survivors don’t get anything.” These kinds of traumas led the Biden Administration to start the Office of Gun Violence Prevention, as the Associated Press reported this week.

Rahimi is one of three gun rights cases the justices has agreed to hear this term. A second was brought by the NRA against former New York State Department of Financial Services Superintendent Maria Vullo.

Vullo issued guidance advising businesses in the state to consider the “reputational risks” of doing business with the NRA after the Parkland school shooting in 2018 in Florida. The justices will consider whether that guidance amounted to coercion. A lower court has ruled that Vullo is protected by qualified immunity — a legal doctrine that generally shields government employees from civil liability for official conduct. Writing for Vox, court analyst Ian Millhiser worried that Vullo’s “foolish” decision might hand the NRA a big win that could limit the government’s ability to enforce some gun-related laws.

In a third case, the court has agreed to hear a challenge to the federal ban on bump stocks, a rifle accessory that uses momentum to make a semi-automatic rifle fire at the speed of a fully automatic machine gun. The Trump administration banned bump stocks after a gunman used them in the 2017 Las Vegas mass shooting to fire hundreds of bullets per minute into a crowd.

The court is hearing these three gun cases on the heels of last year’s bombshell decision in the case of New York State Rifle & Pistol Association, Inc. v. Bruen, which opened up a new legal lane for gun rights advocates.

The cases also come amid a rapidly shifting legislative landscape around the country. In 2003, only one state — Vermont — allowed people to carry concealed weapons without a permit. Now, more than half of states have passed “right-to-carry” laws, most in the last five years. This week, a group of researchers concluded that these laws may increase violent crime by 20%. The study found a correlation between an increase in stolen guns and a decline in the rates at which police solve violent crimes in cities with right-to-carry laws.

The South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported this week that the recently passed right-to-carry law in that state has caused gun safety course enrollment to plummet by more than 60%. The law made the courses optional for people planning to carry concealed weapons legally; they had been mandatory before.

Another recent study found that stricter gun laws around things like background checks and waiting periods have resulted in a roughly 10% reduction in nationwide gun deaths over a 25-year span. Researcher Patrick Sharkey told The New York Times that, contrary to the prevailing wisdom, “...we have just lived through a period of enormous progress that was driven by public policy.”

Sharkey examined data from 1991 to 2016, two years before the Parkland shooting. That massacre sparked calls for “red flag laws,” which typically allow family members, romantic partners, or law enforcement to petition a court to have guns seized from someone who poses an immediate risk to themselves or others.

These kinds of laws — stronger versions of the federal law at issue in Rahimi — have been adopted or strengthened in 17 states in the past five years, and there’s a nearly perfect split between states with red flag laws versus those with right-to-carry. More than 40 states have passed at least one or the other in the past 20 years.

The most recent state to adopt a red flag law is Minnesota, where it will go into effect this January. Experts told Chip Brownlee from The Trace that the laws may reduce gun violence deaths — but that the effectiveness of red flag laws is entirely tied to how well they are enforced and public awareness that they exist. After a mass shooting in Maine last month, some residents have been advocating for the state to pass a red flag law.

Maine officials can seize guns from someone deemed to be an extreme risk, but the laws require that person to be taken into custody and medically evaluated — steps that some critics say are too slow to deal with threats. In the Oct. 25 mass shooting in Lewiston, the gunman’s family began warning law enforcement as early as May. But the legal process for taking his guns away had not even begun when he killed 18 people and himself, and injured 13 others.

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Jamiles Lartey Twitter Email is a New Orleans-based staff writer for The Marshall Project. Previously, he worked as a reporter for the Guardian covering issues of criminal justice, race and policing. Jamiles was a member of the team behind the award-winning online database “The Counted,” tracking police violence in 2015 and 2016. In 2016, he was named “Michael J. Feeney Emerging Journalist of the Year” by the National Association of Black Journalists.