SCOTUS Upholds Gun Ban for Domestic Abusers in Victory for Tribal Women

Suzette Brewer

In a 6-2 ruling, the United States Supreme Court on June 27 affirmed the federal firearm prohibition which bans those convicted of minor domestic violence charges from possessing a firearm, and was hailed as a major victory for advocacy groups for women’s rights and survivors of domestic violence.

The question posed in Voisine v. U.S. addressed whether domestic abusers convicted of minor domestic-violence charges should be banned from owning guns because their crimes were merely “reckless,” and not premeditated. The case which tested the scope of a 1996 amendment to the federal Gun Control Act (known as “The Lautenberg Amendment”) barring those convicted of misdemeanor domestic-violence offenses from owning firearms.

The case emerged out of Maine after two men, Stephen Voisine and William Armstrong III, were both previously convicted numerous times for beating their significant others. Later, Voisine was also convicted for killing a baby bald eagle. His co-plaintiff, Armstrong, was found with six guns in his possession during a drug raid. Both men were charged with illegal gun possession based on their previous domestic violence charges.

Rejecting arguments that gun prohibition applies only to intentional acts of abuse, the court ruled that those convicted of domestic violence charges should be banned from owning firearms, even if their crime was “reckless.” Writing for the majority, Justice Elena Kagan, said that federal law “contains no exclusion for convictions based on reckless behavior. A person who assaults another recklessly ‘uses’ force, no less than one who carries out that same action knowingly or intentionally.”

The National Indian Women’s Resource Center (NIWRC) praised the decision for its impact on Native communities because of the disproportional rates of domestic violence suffered by women in Indian communities across the country.

“This is a resounding victory for survivors of domestic violence,” said Cherrah Giles, Board President for the NIWRC. “In Indian country, where Native women suffer from domestic violence at rates higher than any other demographic, we are painfully aware of the fact that domestic violence perpetrators escalate their violent acts over time, and what may begin with a reckless act often progresses to violence that results in severe injuries or fatalities at the hands of a domestic abuser.”

The NIWRC, along with five tribes including the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, the Little Traverse Bay Band of Odawa Indians, the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi, the Seminole Nation, and the Tulalip Tribes, filed a joint amicus brief in the case, noting that many tribal governments also define domestic violence as a crime that may be committed with reckless intent. According to NIWRC, 18 tribal coalitions joined the NIWRC amicus brief.

The decision in Voisine arrives in a time when tribal nations across the country are redoubling their efforts to protect women and children from the scourge of domestic violence in their communities. In 2013, the NIWRC, along with the National Congress of American Indians and dozens of other tribal advocacy groups worked together in unprecedented solidarity to include tribal jurisdiction provisions in the 2013 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which allows the tribes to prosecute non-Indians who commit domestic violence against citizens on tribal lands.

“This decision is important for Indian country,” said Woodrow Star, chair of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation Law and Order Committee. “It better ensures that domestic violence perpetrators in Indian country who have been convicted of tribal crimes are covered by federal firearms restrictions.”

“The Tulalip Tribes stands with Indian country to celebrate this decision,” said Tulalip Tribes Chairman Mel Sheldon Jr.  “As one of three initial pilot tribes to implement Special Domestic Violence Jurisdiction (SDVJ), a provision of VAWA 2013, we are well aware of the challenges of holding all who would perpetrate against our population accountable for their crimes. Today’s decision continues the quest for parity and justice for which so many in our communities have been fighting.”

 “The First Nations Women’s Alliance understands the relationship between ending violence against our women and restoring tribal sovereignty,” said Linda Thompson, executive director. “Today’s decision ensures that our tribal nations can continue to exercise their inherent sovereignty and protect their women and children from the perpetrators that threaten to abuse, and ultimately, kill them.”

“The Supreme Court’s decision in Voisine ensures that tribal nations will not lose the ability to ensure that all individuals convicted of domestic violence crimes are prohibited from owning or possessing a gun,” said Mary Kathryn Nagle, partner at Pipestem Law, P.C. and attorney for NIWRC. “We know that Native women in the United States face the highest rates of domestic violence, assault and murder in the United States. Thus, today’s decision in Voisine preserves an important protection that tribal nations, in partnership with the United States Attorney, use to protect the lives of Native women and children.”

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