Content Warning: This article mentions domestic abuse and gun violence. If you need to talk to someone now, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233 or text “START” to 88788. You may also reach the Crisis Text Line by texting Text HOME to 741741.

Photo by Kim Jao / North by Northwestern

The U.S. Supreme Court heard a case in early November that could challenge lawmakers’ ability to regulate firearms for persons under domestic violence restraining orders. The case poses far-reaching implications for gun control and domestic violence prevention in what is becoming a landmark legal battle.

Over 12 million U.S. adults are the victims of domestic abuse every year, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline. The U.S. Supreme Court will now decide the constitutionality of disarming abusers under the Second Amendment.

“Victims of domestic abuse and their families deserve peace of mind and certainty that their abuser will not have access to firearms,” said Minnesota senator and former prosecutor Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) in a statement on her website. “I am hopeful the Supreme Court will reject any argument that would pull the rug out from under these victims.”

Research has shown that armed domestic abusers pose an even greater danger to victims, with one study from the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence finding that women are five times more likely to be killed by a male partner when a firearm is present in the household.

Advocates like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) argued that the Supreme Court must ensure the safety of domestic abuse survivors.

“We cannot stand by as federal courts rely on the historical subordination of women to strike down legal protections extended to survivors of domestic violence,” said Sandra Park, senior staff attorney for the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, in a statement on the ACLU’s website.

In August, the ACLU filed an amicus brief to the Supreme Court calling on the Justices to continue protecting women and survivors of domestic abuse.

So what is United States v. Rahim and why would a Supreme Court decision matter? How are Supreme Court Justices thinking about this case? To answer these questions, we have to start at the beginning.

Court decision overruled

Zackey Rahimi is a Texas man who physically assaulted his girlfriend in a parking lot in 2019. Later, Rahimi threatened to shoot his girlfriend if she reported the assault.

A Texas court granted Rahimi’s girlfriend a restraining order, stating that Rahimi was dangerous and likely to continue committing acts of violence. However, Rahimi violated the court order and was later charged with felony aggravated assault after he threatened to shoot another woman in November 2020 and was sentenced to 73 months in prison according to court records.

While he was subject to the domestic abuse restraining order, Rahimi was barred from possessing a firearm under a federal law passed by Congress in 1994.

When Rahimi appealed by arguing the federal law violated his Second Amendment rights, the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed, affirming the lower court’s decision to bar Rahimi from possessing firearms.

However, the Court of Appeals reversed its decision in March 2023 and ruled in favor of Rahimi. The panel of judges changed to operate under a new interpretation of the Second Amendment decided by the U.S. Supreme Court last year in New York State Rifle Association v. Bruen, which severely limited the power of lawmakers to pass gun control legislation.

In the majority opinion in Bruen, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that any firearm restrictions had to be aligned with the “Nation’s historical tradition.” In other words, a historical equivalence of states banning the possession of firearms due to domestic abuse or dating violence must be present.

Given that the Second Amendment was ratified in 1791 – well before domestic abuse became widely criminalized by bills like the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 – the Court may invoke a similar logic when ruling on Rahimi according to the Brennan Center for Justice.

What this means for domestic abuse survivors

In an article published by the Texas Tribune, the director of the Domestic Violence Clinic at the University of Texas School of Law, Jeana Lungwitz, said “You would think anybody looking at these facts would think public safety is at risk. It just seems public safety and common sense would say this is somebody who shouldn’t have a firearm.”

The Supreme Court decides to take only a hundred from the thousands of cases that request judgment each year. Advocates worry that the court's decision to even hear the case is an indication they are poised to validate the Fifth Circuit's decision in favor of Rahimi.

Gun safety advocacy organization Everytown said in a statement that this decision is “extremely dangerous” for domestic abuse survivors.

“If it is not immediately vacated or put on hold and ultimately reversed, it would gut a fundamental public safety law and endanger the lives of domestic violence survivors nationwide,” the statement said.

The Supreme Court may double down on its application of the Bruen opinion, possibly opening the floodgates for Americans with domestic abuse restraining orders to continue possessing firearms.

A collection of public health researchers and gun safety attorneys filed an amicus brief to the Supreme Court outlining the dangers of such a ruling. The 55-page report argues that such firearm restrictions are constitutional because of the United State’s long history of disarming persons deemed to pose a danger to the public, such as colonial America’s “Going armed” and “Surety” laws.

Justice Elena Kagan further brought attention to this point when hearing arguments.

“Two hundred some years ago, the problem of domestic violence was conceived very differently,” Kagan said. “People had different understandings with respect to pretty much every aspect of the problem. So if you're looking for a ban on domestic violence, it's not going to be there.”

Reactions from the Justices seem mixed according to court transcripts and it’s not immediately apparent which way they intend to rule. While they deliberate, the future for many domestic abuse survivors remains unclear.

“All too often, the only difference between a battered woman and a dead woman is the presence of a gun,” said Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar, the attorney for the government, in her opening remarks before the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court is expected to issue its rulings in the summer of 2024.