On July 25, Tarrant County District Court received a letter from Zackey Rahimi. He wanted to apologize.
The man at the center of a monumental Supreme Court case on gun rights allegedly shot guns in public at least six times over a three-month period: three times directly at people, once into a house and twice into the air. All of those alleged shootings occurred while he was under a protective order for domestic violence that prohibited him from possessing firearms.
In the letter, Rahimi pleaded with the judge to take mercy on him. Since his family immigrated to the United States from Afghanistan, he had grown up in poverty, he wrote. Shy and overweight, kids at school bullied him. A devoted gearhead, he found a way to help his family pay the bills in high school by flipping cars bought at auction after repairing and detailing them.
At some point, however, he drifted toward “the wrong crowd that was using me & trying to get me to go on a wrong path.”
“I started being intoxicated at all times by smoking marijuana, drinking alcohol, doing pills & all type of mess trying to get me to become a whole other person,” Rahimi wrote.
Now, he wanted to put the drugs behind him and focus on trying to earn an engineering certificate from a technical school, in the hope of landing a job in the automobile industry to help support his parents and his young son. He promised the judge he would “stay away from firearms & weapons, & never to be away from my family again.”
Rahimi’s disavowal of firearms is an ironic twist for the man whose case may end up expanding gun rights after it is heard at the Supreme Court on Nov. 7.
It’s the federal case for possession of firearms while under a protective order, a felony since 1994, that turned Rahimi into the unlikely face of a gun rights movement he now wants little to do with. The Supreme Court promises to settle the question of whether the Constitution allows authorities to strip a domestic abuser’s gun rights on the basis of a civil order.
The court’s ruling will have repercussions far beyond Rahimi himself. A decision against him would mark the first time the conservative-dominated court sets limits on the sweeping reinterpretation of Second Amendment rights laid out by Justice Clarence Thomas last year. A ruling in Rahimi’s favor, on the other hand, would send shockwaves through the gun reform movement, with Thomas’ new standard threatening to overturn other long-standing laws passed in the name of public safety.
Gun rights groups have kept the case and its potentially unsympathetic defendant at arm’s length. But several of them have filed briefs arguing that the Supreme Court should uphold the decision to restore Rahimi’s Second Amendment rights, questioning why the state of Texas did not charge him criminally for several alleged acts of violence described in federal court records before he allegedly went on a shooting spree.
Documents and videos obtained by HuffPost from both state and federal courts, including the letter to the judge, shed new light on the events that eventually thrust Rahimi into the national spotlight, allowing the most complete reconstruction to date of his alleged misdeeds and self-professed remorse. Rahimi, 23, faces a total of 11 criminal charges in Texas, most of which have not been previously reported. The videos, which have not been publicly revealed before, show a man prosecutors say is Rahimi firing guns recklessly in public, including one incident that shows two small children were only feet away from the volley of bullets.
A Crucial Test For Gun Rights
In a landmark case last year, the conservative Supreme Court laid out a sweeping new vision for Second Amendment protections. Judges should no longer consider the government’s interest in public safety when weighing the constitutionality of gun restrictions, Thomas wrote in the majority opinion for New York State Rifle & Pistol Association Inc. v. Bruen. Instead, gun restrictions are only constitutional if similar laws existed at some point roughly between 1791, when the Bill of Rights became law, and the end of the Civil War.
That decision led to chaotic lower court disputes over the constitutionality of dozens of long-standing gun restrictions, as judges struggled to interpret what many legal scholars view as an unusually vague and improbably expansive ruling.
Rahimi’s case was among the most controversial. Gun reformers and advocates for victims of domestic violence were appalled that the three-judge panel would prioritize protecting an abuser’s gun rights over a woman seeking protection or over public safety in general.
Rahimi faces a total of five felonies and six misdemeanors, most of them involving guns. Contrary to Second Amendment defenders’ assertions in amicus briefings to the Supreme Court, the state of Texas did charge Rahimi in criminal court for the string of abusive acts that resulted in his protective order.
The events began on Dec. 9, 2019, when Rahimi and his former girlfriend, who is the mother of their young son, got into an argument in a parking lot in Arlington, Texas, according to federal and state court records. As she tried to leave, Rahimi allegedly threw her to the ground, then dragged her by the hair toward a car and shoved her inside, bashing her forehead on the dash in the process. When a bystander tried to intervene, Rahimi opened fire at them.
On Feb. 5, a Tarrant County court issued a protective order barring Rahimi from contacting his former partner or their young son for two years due to Rahimi’s acts of family violence. The court informed him that possessing a firearm while under the protective order was a federal felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
The next month, prosecutors in Tarrant County charged Rahimi with three offenses: terroristic threat of family/household, assault causing bodily injury and recklessly discharging a firearm. All three offenses are class A misdemeanors in Texas, the most serious non-felony offense level.
Police arrested Rahimi on March 9, 2020. A magistrate set a $2,500 bond for each of the three offenses, which Rahimi posted using a bail bondsman. The terms of the bonds also forbade him from possessing firearms or contacting his ex.
Despite his mounting legal troubles, Rahimi allegedly approached his ex-girlfriend’s house in violation of the protective order two months later, on May 10, according to state criminal records. Federal prosecutors later wrote in a brief to the Supreme Court that Rahimi also violated the protective order by attempting to communicate with his ex on social media.
When police found Rahimi and arrested him three months later, they allegedly discovered fentanyl on him — yet another violation of the terms of his growing number of bonds.
Tarrant County prosecutors charged him on Sept. 1, 2020, with violating the protective order, his fourth class A misdemeanor, and a grand jury indicted him later that month with possession of fentanyl, his first felony charge.
This time, a Tarrant County magistrate recommended a bond of only $1,500 for violating the protective order, and released him for half of that. His bond for fentanyl possession was set for $1,500. Again, the county released him.
Shortly after that, Rahimi went on a string of at least six shootings over three months.
On Nov. 12, 2020, Rahimi asked a 25-year-old woman over Snapchat to meet him in a parking lot, saying he “had something for her,” according to police records obtained by HuffPost last month. When she arrived, she told police she saw Rahimi kneeling by the driver’s side of a car wearing all black clothes, including a black ski mask over his face. Rahimi appeared to carry a pistol with an extended magazine larger than the gun itself.
As she drove away, Rahimi allegedly fired a handful of times, with some of the bullets appearing to strike her car while she was inside.
It’s a pattern that would repeat itself. In two separate instances, Rahimi allegedly fired at other drivers in acts of apparent road rage.
Someone caught one of them on a cellphone camera. In the video, dated Dec. 8, 2020, a man whom federal prosecutors later identified as Rahimi exits what appears to be an auto shop garage in a silver sedan, then slams on the gas and fishtails into traffic as cars speed toward him. Another car plows into the back of the silver sedan, then pulls to the side.
The man then stops the silver sedan in the middle of traffic, walks toward the parked car that hit him, and fires 10 times directly at it — somehow managing not to strike anyone. He then runs back to the car and speeds off.
In another video obtained by HuffPost, two young boys drive along a residential neighborhood sidewalk in a toy car as a woman films them. A beige car pulls up beside them. A man identified by federal prosecutors as Rahimi briefly steps out of the car as one of the children steps toward him.
Then, the man gets back in the passenger seat and the car drives off. As it drives away, the woman behind the camera shifts her focus to the car. The man sticks his hand out of the passenger side window and fires six times into the air as he drives away.
Rahimi also fired into a person’s home the same month, according to a grand jury indictment. Federal prosecutors would later tell the Supreme Court he fired an AR-15 into the house of someone who had bought drugs from him over comments the customer made on social media.
And in January 2021, Rahimi fired into the air outside a Whataburger after his friend’s credit card was declined, federal court records say.
Fort Worth police arrested Rahimi on Jan. 14, 2021, according to state court records. When police from Arlington, where Rahimi was also wanted, searched his family home, they found a .45-caliber Glock with an extended magazine lying on his bedroom nightstand, a .308-caliber semi-automatic rifle under the bed, and a copy of the protective order prohibiting him from possessing either gun.
The detectives referred the case to agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, who filed a criminal complaint in federal court the same day against Rahimi for possessing firearms while under a protective order for domestic violence.
Rahimi’s violent tendencies appeared to continue after his incarceration. On March 28, 2021, a police officer reprimanded Rahimi repeatedly for reaching out his hands to pass items to other inmates while walking past their units. The last time, the officer ordered Rahimi to place his hands on the bars. When Rahimi refused, the officer tried to physically guide him away. Rahimi struck the officer in the throat with his left hand.
‘That Is Truly Not Me’
But a few months later, as his sentencing drew near, Rahimi appeared to change.
His public defenders raised constitutional objections to the law from the beginning, which is common. But the issue had already been argued and decided in Texas, so Rahimi had little choice but to plead guilty.
The case stayed alive, however, because his public defenders and the U.S. attorney’s office remained at odds over the length of his sentence and whether he should serve it after or alongside whatever jail time he might end up serving for his state offenses.
“You’re talking about six separate shootings here,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Frank Gatto told Judge Mark Pittman on Sept. 23, 2021, as he weighed Rahimi’s sentence. “And to me, that first video, where he causes this accident, gets out and just starts shooting, is one of the most bone-chilling videos for me to watch and see. If that doesn’t send chills down anybody’s spine seeing that, I don’t know of much else that can.”
“To just come out and cause this accident, pull out your gun and just start emptying your clip into that other person’s car, to me, I think, that truly shows there is a grave and callous disregard of human life,” Gatto added.
Rahimi had yet to be convicted of anything else, other than a marijuana possession misdemeanor from three years before for which he had only served six days, assistant federal public defender Rachel Taft responded. He had a right to let the state cases play out before the court used the allegations against him to raise his sentence. He planned to seek anger management and educational opportunities while incarcerated, she said.
“Even with a five-year sentence, if Mr. Rahimi were to be released in his mid-20s, at that time we would see full formation of his frontal cortex and we would see, certainly, just by nature of maturity level, a different person when he is released,” Taft told the judge. “He’s talked to me about some of the inmates he’s met there, who don’t know their children, their parents have passed away and they weren’t able to be there, and he doesn’t want that for himself.”
Pittman then asked to hear from Rahimi.
The defendant said he realized his pre-sentencing report said “terrible things, but that is truly not me.”
“I am a very good human being, but it’s my mistake for being around those wrong people and not listening to my family,” Rahimi told the judge. “I’m a new man, having faith and seeking only the straight pathway and staying very close to the Lord.”
His plea failed to convince the judge. Noting that Rahimi had a criminal history dating back to age 11, his six alleged shootings, his history of domestic violence and his disregard for the protective order, Pittman sentenced Rahimi to 73 months in prison. The sentence would run concurrently to most of his misdemeanors, but consecutively to whatever sentence he received in the case of the aggravated assault in which he allegedly lured the woman into the parking lot.
Rahimi’s lawyers appealed the sentencing decision, which put the case before the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals after the Supreme Court’s bombshell ruling in Bruen. When a three-judge panel reviewed the case early this year, they overturned Rahimi’s conviction altogether — theoretically restoring his gun rights.
Rahimi is still locked up in Green Bay Jail in Fort Worth. He faces the looming possibility of sentences in his three aggravated assault cases that could range anywhere from two to 20 years.
All this makes him an unusual candidate for determining the future of gun rights. The Supreme Court has issued three major rulings that taken together have massively expanded the Second Amendment since 2008. Law-abiding citizens seeking to use firearms for self-protection filed the first two, while a firearms advocacy group filed the third. All three coursed their way through civil rather than criminal court.
Rahimi, on the other hand, only wants his freedom back — and now swears off guns as he tries to get it.
“I had firearms for the right reason in our place to be able to protect my family at all times especially for what we’ve went through in the past,” Rahimi wrote in his letter of apology to the Tarrant County Court. “But I’ll make sure to do whatever it takes to be able to do everything the right pathway.”