ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
The Supreme Court handed advocates of gun safety a big victory today. In a 6 to 2 ruling, the court found that people convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence crimes can be barred from owning weapons. NPR's Carrie Johnson reports.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Twenty years ago, Congress made it a federal crime for anyone convicted of a misdemeanor domestic violence offense to possess a firearm. There's a reason for that zero-tolerance approach.
WILLIAM ROSEN: The presence of a gun in a domestic violence situation makes it five times more likely that a woman will be killed.
JOHNSON: William Rosen is a lawyer with the advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety.
ROSEN: And, of course, what should also be obvious is that domestic assaults with firearms are 12 times more likely to end in a victim's death.
JOHNSON: The high court case involved two men from Maine who pleaded guilty to slapping or shoving their romantic partners. Years later, they came on to law enforcement radar again. Authorities investigating the death of a bald eagle, a protected species, and a narcotics ring found both men had firearms and both were charged with new crimes, violations of that 1996 federal weapons law.
The men challenged their convictions all the way up to the Supreme Court where they argued their domestic violence records involved reckless conduct. Nothing serious enough, they said, to trigger the weapons ban. But six justices concluded that Congress clearly meant the 20-year-old law to cover all manner of domestic assaults and batteries.
Writing for the majority, Justice Elena Kagan said abusers who act recklessly know they behave with a risk of hurting someone like a husband throwing a plate at a wall that bounces and injures his wife. The Justice Department says more than 1 million domestic violence crimes happen in the U.S. every year. Advocates say the stakes of this decision could be measured in lives. Again, William Rosen of Everytown for Gun Safety.
ROSEN: A successful challenge to this law would have meant that misdemeanor domestic violence crimes would no longer have prohibited gun possession in at least 34 states covering something like 60 percent of the country's population with the result that many dangerous domestic abusers would no longer be blocked from buying guns.
JOHNSON: Law enforcement groups also cheered the decision. Police leaders had written the justices in support of a broad reading of the federal weapons ban reasoning it helps keep officers safe when they respond to domestic disturbances. But for the court's two dissenters, the ruling by the majority went too far.
In an unusual alliance of Justice Clarence Thomas and Justice Sonia Sotomayor - said the reckless conduct by the two men from Maine was not enough to trigger the federal ban on weapons possession.
For Supreme Court aficionados and even casual court watchers, this case may be remembered for something else. Oral argument marked the first time Justice Thomas asked a question in 10 years. Here he was in February chiming in as government lawyer Ilana Eisenstein finished her presentation.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
ILANA EISENSTEIN: If there are no further questions.
CLARENCE THOMAS: Ms. Eisenstein - one question. Can you give me - this is a misdemeanor violation. It suspends a constitutional right. Can you give me another area where a misdemeanor violation suspends a constitutional right?
JOHNSON: Thomas echoed that point today in his dissent. He said the Second Amendment right to bear arms should not be treated so lightly. Herb Titus who signed a friend of the court brief for the Gun Owners Foundation agrees.
HERB TITUS: They disregard the Second Amendment entirely and construe the statute as if there is no constitutional right involved at all in the loss of firearm rights.
JOHNSON: Titus says he thinks there are more legal challenges ahead. In fact, he says, his law firms already heard from people who want to sue to restore their gun rights. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.