WASHINGTON (CN) - A Tennessee man once convicted of injuring his girlfriend must face weapons charges based on a federal law that includes him as a domestic abuser, the Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.
While felons have long been barred from possessing guns, many perpetrators of domestic violence are convicted only of misdemeanors, the court noted. Their crimes meanwhile often escalate in severity over time, and the presence of a firearm increases the chances of a homicide.
Congress sought to close this loophole in gun-control laws with Section 922(g)(9) of Title 18 - forbidding the ownership of firearm making it a crime for anyone convicted of "a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence."
Federal authorities sought to prosecute James Alvin Castleman under this law, among others, in 2008 based on evidence that he was selling firearms on the black market.
Seven years earlier, Castleman had pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor offense of having "intentionally or knowingly cause[d] bodily injury to" the mother of his child.
He sought to dismiss the 922(g)(9) charges by claiming that his 2001 conviction lacked use of physical force as an element, meaning that it did not qualify as a "misdemeanor crime of domestic violence."
A federal judge and the 6th Circuit sided with Castleman, noting that Tennessee's overly broad definition of domestic violence injury includes anything from an abrasion to one requiring medical care.
After taking up the case in October, the Supreme Court was unanimous in reversing Wednesday.
The ruling opens with assertion that "the degree of force that supports a common-law battery conviction" satisfies the requirement of "physical force."
"Whereas the word 'violent' or 'violence' standing alone 'connotes a substantial degree of force,' that is not true of 'domestic violence,'" Justice Sotomayor wrote for the court.
Citing a 2000 report by the Justice Department on violence against women, the decision goes on to note that "most physical assaults committed against women and men by intimates are relatively minor and consist of pushing, grabbing, shoving, slapping, and hitting."
It is easy to describe such acts as "domestic violence," however, when they accumulate over time and put one intimate partner under the control of the other, the decision states.
"If a seemingly minor act like this draws the attention of authorities and leads to a successful prosecution for a misdemeanor offense, it does not offend common sense or the English language to characterize the resulting conviction as a 'misdemeanor crime of domestic violence,'" Sotomayor wrote.
The court also emphasized that, in the case of Castleman's victim, a "bodily injury" must result from "physical force."
Whether or not an injury such as an abrasion or bruise constitutes violent force is immaterial because "these forms of injury do necessitate force in the common-law sense," Sotomayor wrote.
The justices scoffed at Castleman's logic that would purportedly mean "that pulling the trigger on a gun is not a 'use of force' because it is the bullet, not the trigger, that actually strikes the victim."
Concurring in part and in judgment, Justice Antonin Scalia said he reached the conclusion on narrower grounds.
Scalia said his colleagues when too far in treating "any offensive touching, no matter how slight, as sufficient" to meet the requirements.
"That expansive common-law definition cannot be squared with relevant precedent or statutory text," Scalia wrote.
Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas also concurred in judgment, focusing exclusively on how the court treated "physical force" in the 2010 opinion Johnson v. United States.
"In my view, the meaning of the contested statutory language is the same now as it was four years ago in Johnson, and therefore, for the reasons set out in my Johnson dissent, I would not extend the reasoning of Johnson to the question presented here, on which the Johnson court specifically reserved judgment," Alito wrote.
Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a bipartisan coalition founded by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Boston Mayor Thomas, said the decision makes women and children safer.
"The court wisely rejected the attempts by the Washington gun lobby to arm the very people who should not have guns in their hands and instead, stood with women, children and the law enforcement officers who protect them," Mayors Against Illegal Guns chairman John Feinblatt said in a statement.
Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America founder Shannon Watts meanwhile noted that a ruling for Castleman would have given gun rights to "tens of thousands of dangerous convicted batterers.
"It's all part of a concerted effort by the gun lobby, through our courts and in our state legislatures, to make it easier for domestic abusers to have guns," Watts added.
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