When detectives went looking for Zackey Rahimi at his family home in Kennedale, Texas, on Jan. 14, 2021, they didn’t find him. Rahimi, whom authorities suspected was a drug dealer who had been involved in a handful of recent shootings, had already been arrested on charges of aggravated assault with a firearm in a separate case out of nearby Fort Worth.
On the nightstand in his empty bedroom, the officers found a loaded .45 caliber Glock with a 24-round extended magazine. Under the bed, they found a .308 semi-automatic rifle loaded with 16 rounds lying in an open box. And in his dresser, they found a protective order for domestic abuse, which stripped him of the right to possess either of the guns. Violating the provision is a federal crime.
The detectives passed the information to an agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, who filed a criminal complaint in federal court the next day. It seemed likely to be an open-and-shut case. A few months later, Rahimi pleaded guilty and was sentenced to six years in federal prison.
But in the wake of the Supreme Court’s sweeping reinterpretation of the Second Amendment last year, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Rahimi’s conviction, ruling that the law barring domestic abusers from keeping guns unconstitutionally violates their right to bear arms.
The ruling dealt a heavy blow to those working to protect people from abusers. Many perpetrators of domestic abuse have clean criminal records and no other allegations of violence. Rahimi, by contrast, has an extensive list of allegations against him involving guns and violence, some of which have not been previously reported. For the courts to conclude that his right to a gun deserves more urgent protection than the woman who asked a judge to keep her and her child safe raises the chilling prospect that it could become all but impossible to take guns from any abuser.
For now, the ruling only applies in the states of the 5th Circuit: Texas, Mississippi and Louisiana. But the Supreme Court on Friday agreed to review the case, turning Rahimi into one of the most closely watched tests for how far the conservative court will expand gun rights.
A Long List Of Gun Allegations
Rahimi is currently locked up at Green Bay Jail in Fort Worth. Grand juries have indicted him for aggravated assault with a firearm against three people, for recklessly shooting into an occupied home, and for felony possession of fentanyl.
The only conviction currently on Rahimi’s criminal record is a misdemeanor for possession of marijuana stemming from a charge he received shortly after turning 18, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety.
Court filings and police records, however, describe a violent drug dealer who threatened to shoot at least two women with firearms and repeatedly opened fire in public over a three-month period that ended with his arrest.
A police report from late 2019 alleges that one of Rahimi’s customers stole a .308 bolt-action rifle and a .12 gauge autoloading shotgun to pay him for drugs. The complainant told police Rahimi was “known to carry a 9mm firearm and possess other weapons.” Law enforcement did not charge Rahimi with a crime over the allegations of drug dealing or involvement with stolen weapons.
The next year, in February 2020, a judge issued the protective order that spurred his federal case. The order was meant to keep Rahimi’s former girlfriend and their child safe after an incident in which Rahimi allegedly hurled her to the ground by the wrist in a parking lot, dragged her to a car, and shoved her inside, banging her head on the dashboard in the process, according to federal court filings. He then allegedly grabbed a gun and shot at a bystander who witnessed the interaction. His ex-girlfriend escaped, but he later threatened to shoot her if she told anyone, the court records state.
Rahimi violated that protective order at least twice, according to federal court records ― once by communicating with the woman on social media, and another time by going to her house in the middle of the night, where police arrested him.
In November 2020, police say Rahimi threatened a different woman with a gun, this time leading to a charge for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.
Over the next three months, Rahimi allegedly fired guns in public at least five times, according to court filings and police records. Police say he shot into someone’s home with an AR-15 over social media comments. After a car crash, he allegedly shot at the other driver, left, came back, then shot at them again. A few days later, he allegedly fired a gun in public again, this time in front of kids in a residential neighborhood.
A few weeks later, Rahimi allegedly cut across a highway to follow a truck off an exit after the driver flashed his lights at him. Rahimi shot several times at a car driving behind the truck, according to police. In January 2021, he allegedly shot into the air outside a Whataburger after his friend’s credit card got declined. Bullets from one of Rahimi’s suspected shootings ― it’s not clear which one, or if perhaps there was a sixth ― flew into a car dealership parking lot, hitting a Land Rover, a fence and the building’s walls, according to police records.
By that time, police were already searching for Rahimi to arrest him on one of the charges for aggravated assault with a firearm. It remains unclear which assault, since the state of Texas exempts many law enforcement records from public disclosure until investigations conclude.
Rahimi’s reputation for violence continued after his arrest. In March 2021, while walking past a housing unit in Tarrant County Jail, Rahimi stuck out his right hand to another inmate despite repeated warnings to keep his hands to himself. When a guard told Rahimi to stop, he refused to follow the order, then struck the guard in the throat, according to a police report.
A Surprise Decision
When Rahimi’s case for possessing a gun while subject to a restraining order for domestic violence came before a federal judge in 2021, his public defender contended that the statute itself was unconstitutional. The law has been on the books since 1994.
At the time he was caught, Rahimi wasn’t a convicted felon. He no longer lived with his ex-girlfriend. Grand juries had yet to indict him. His public defender contended that he kept the two guns police found in his room for self-defense ― a right the Second Amendment guarantees.
When the argument failed to convince either a federal judge or the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Rahimi pleaded guilty, leaving him with a 73-month sentence followed by three years of supervised release.
But the case stayed alive after conviction, partly because U.S. District Judge Mark Pittman ordered Rahimi to begin serving that time only after he finished possible jail sentences in some of his unresolved state criminal cases ― a decision Rahimi’s defenders disputed.
Then came the Supreme Court’s bombshell ruling in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association Inc. v. Bruen last year, which overturned the state’s century-year-old law banning people from carrying a handgun without a license. The decision barred New York from requiring people to show they faced a specific threat when asking for a license to carry a handgun for self-defense.
That may sound like a narrow change to a single state’s law. But the majority opinion written by Justice Clarence Thomas announced a new standard for judging the constitutionality of firearm restrictions ― fundamentally reshaping gun law and leaving the government far less wiggle room to limit gun violence with restrictive laws.
Before Bruen, lawmakers could weigh concerns like public safety against the individual’s right to bear arms. Now, the Supreme Court only considers gun laws constitutional if they fit within a historical tradition stretching back to sometime between the ratification of the Second Amendment in 1791 and some unspecified point in the 19th century.
With a hazy time frame and unclear definition of what amounts to a “historical tradition,” no one’s quite sure what the Supreme Court’s new Second Amendment standard actually means.
As a result, lower courts are now hearing challenges to a century’s worth of gun restrictions. The Supreme Court specifically asked lower courts to reconsider cases centering on four major laws in light of Bruen: Maryland’s assault weapons ban, Hawaii’s concealed carry law, and magazine restriction laws in California and New Jersey.
Courts around the country have other overturned state laws banning so-called “ghost guns” and restricting handgun purchases under the age of 21. And courts have issued conflicting rulings on whether barring felons from possessing firearms remains constitutional in a post-Bruen world.
Rahimi’s case is among the most controversial. After Bruen, a three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals re-heard his case. The panel, two of whom were appointed by former President Donald Trump, reversed its previous position, filing an opinion on March 2 saying the law barring people subject to domestic violence restraining orders from owning guns was unconstitutional.
Keeping guns out of the hands of domestic abusers might be a “laudable policy goal,” the opinion reads, but it’s one that “our ancestors never would have accepted,” making it fall short of the Bruen standard.
The reversal of Rahimi’s conviction came as a shock to advocates for survivors of domestic violence and gun reformers, who found it hard to fathom the logic of prioritizing an abuser’s gun rights over the government’s duty to protect the abused.
“Everyone's entitled to due process, but safety should come first”
“The case itself is very alarming and very disturbing,” said Ruth Glenn, president of public affairs for the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “It feels as though we are going back in time to when survivors were not believed and weren’t protected, and all of the work over the years to ensure they were believed and protected is now being challenged.”
“The whole idea of a protective order is to protect someone who feels they’re under imminent risk,” Glenn added. “The gun increases that risk exponentially.”
The government considers Rahimi dangerous enough to be kept in jail, Glenn noted ― an element of due process similar to the one that temporarily deprived him of possessing firearms.
“Part of his due process is sitting right in that jail while they iron all that other stuff out, but they’re talking about how his rights were infringed by his guns getting removed through due process as part of his protective order,” Glenn said. “Everyone’s entitled to due process, but safety should come first.”
On average, intimate partners shoot and kill 70 women per month, according to reform group Everytown’s analysis of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. An estimated 4.5 million women in the United States have been threatened with a gun by an intimate partner, and 1 million have been shot or shot at, according to a 2016 study published by the journal Trauma, Violence, and Abuse.
“We know that when you add a gun to a domestic violence scenario, it’s going to end in somebody getting killed,” said David Pucino, deputy chief counsel at Giffords Law Center, a gun reform group. Rahimi “is not an outlier. That’s why we have this law on the books.”
Gun rights groups, meanwhile, have been largely silent on Rahimi’s case. HuffPost reached out to the National Rifle Association and Gun Owners of America for comment on this story; neither responded.
What Would George Washington Do?
Rahimi’s case turns on one of the most fundamental questions of firearm restriction in a country that guarantees the right to bear arms: Who is too dangerous to own a gun?
The federal and state governments have historically tried to keep guns out of the hands of people they considered dangerous ― most notably both enslaved and free Black people, as well as those who refused to swear allegiance to the country. The government also has a long tradition of disarming specific people on a case-by-case basis.
Lawyers for the Biden administration have argued that this principle is clear enough to include perpetrators of domestic violence. A restraining order requires a judge to establish that the person is dangerous.
Rahimi’s public defenders, on the other hand, contend that stripping domestic abusers’ gun rights is a modern legal concept. George Washington’s generation punished domestic abusers with public shaming, whipping, divorce and, in the most extreme cases, death. But they didn’t pass laws to take their guns.
“The government cannot say that the founding generation was unaware of domestic violence as a social problem,” Rahimi’s defenders wrote in their unsuccessful motion to keep the Supreme Court from considering his case. “The Founders could have adopted a complete ban on firearms to combat intimate-partner violence. They didn’t.”
The Supreme Court will likely hear the case in the fall. It’s not likely to issue a ruling until sometime next year.
When it does, it will help clarify what the ruling in Bruen really meant. While it remains to be seen, reformers hope the Supreme Court will confirm their suspicions that the 5th Circuit took it much too far.
“Whatever Bruen means, it can’t mean this ― that abusers can’t be disarmed,” Pucino said. “It can’t be right.”
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.