By Sherry Simon
Vice Chair, Pax Christi USA National Council
Co-convener, Pax Christi USA Gun Violence Prevention Working Group
The following opinion piece was published in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on November 17, 2023.
Earlier this month, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case of United States v. Rahimi.
Zackey Rahimi is a known domestic abuser. He was issued a restraining order in 2020 after assaulting his live-in girlfriend outside their apartment, discharging a gun in the process. During a legal search unrelated to his history as an abuser, police discovered that Rahimi possessed several firearms, contrary to federal law for those subject to restraining orders or convicted of domestic assault.
Rahimi, however, sees himself as a victim. He sued the federal government, arguing that, despite his documented history of violence against women and reckless use of firearms, he should be able to own as many guns as he wants. An appellate court agreed.
The law that would effectively be struck down by this court’s action is broadly popular. Over 80 percent of Americans agree that those who are violent toward women and children should not be allowed to own firearms. Women who are in troubled relationships–or are looking to get out of them–deserve that protection. Violence against women turns deadly when a gun is involved. Women are five times more likely to be killed by an abuser when the abuser has a gun in the home. Mass shootings often begin with the killing of family members.
Leaders across our society have recognized the need to protect women. Faith leaders from a range of religious traditions have endorsed the Violence Against Women Act and its reauthorization. In the Rahimi case, a collection of faith organizations signed on to a joint amici curiae brief in support of existing laws preventing abusers from getting a gun, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops submitted its own brief. Groups from around America dedicated to protecting vulnerable women and children also submitted briefs in support of the law, as have law-enforcement organizations and others.
The appellate court that overturned the law cited a lack of historical precedent for the restriction on domestic abusers owning firearms. But while domestic abuse is a relatively recent category of law, legislation and the common law in effect at the time of the passage of the Second Amendment recognized that those who were threats to others should not possess weapons.
Several states’ legal procedure in the colonial and revolutionary era allowed constables to bring those who had committed past violence and who had reacquired firearms to a judge. During the ratification of the Second Amendment, records of the debate in state legislatures show that those bodies expected common-law restrictions on the ownership of arms to prevail. (These states’ records of debate were highly influential in the Supreme Court’s decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, which re-established the right of gun ownership for self-defense but acknowledged a limit to that right.)
As a clinical psychologist in practice for 35 years, I have treated women who were assaulted and abused within their marriage. In several cases, the husband owned a gun and used it to threaten their life, leading to significant trauma for the person being threatened. Not only did these women fear for their safety, but they also feared for their lives and sometimes the lives of their children.
Sadly, women have very few legal protections in these abusive relationships. To go backwards and make it legal for those who have a criminal history of domestic violence to own guns only increases the likelihood of violence, assault, and homicide in these settings.
Although we can always do more, our nation has made great strides in recent decades to improve the protection and well-being of those at risk of violence. It is important that the courts not remove an essential aspect of that protection.
Cover photo: Bart Everson; usage: CC BY 2.0 DEED