American women are 11 times more likely to be murdered with guns than women in other high-income countries, and an average of 46 American women are shot to death each month by a current or former husband or boyfriend. To reduce these threats, a common-sense federal law bars convicted domestic abusers from buying or owning guns.
But on Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear a case that could open a perilous loophole in the law that protects families and children from deadly batterers. The wrong decision by the Court could leave abused women and children vulnerable to gun violence and impose serious costs on communities across the country.
The case, called United States v. Castleman, involves a convicted domestic abuser and gun trafficker from my state, Tennessee, who argues that his domestic assault conviction should not prohibit him from owning a gun. Mr. Castleman was convicted for intentionally or knowingly causing "bodily injury" to the mother of his child. Seven years later, investigators learned he was illegally trafficking guns. Castleman was charged in the federal court in Memphis with violating the ban on gun possession by a person convicted of a "misdemeanor crime of domestic violence."
Castleman objected to the charges, and argued that the law only bars gun ownership by batterers convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors involving "strong and violent" force.
He's mistaken. The law he was charged under doesn't include the words "strong" or "violent." And the law's sponsor, the late Senator Frank Lautenberg, made clear it wasn't restricted to a small subset of domestic abuse crimes; it was designed to create a policy of "zero tolerance when it comes to guns and domestic violence."
But the lower courts agreed with Castleman, and threw out the gun possession charges. Now it's up to the Supreme Court to correct the mistake.
The stakes are extraordinarily high. There are more than 900,000 domestic violence incidents every year in the United States, and when guns are involved, the results are often deadly. Domestic assaults involving guns are twelve times more likely to cause death than assaults that don't involve firearms, and the presence of a gun in a domestic violence situation increases the risk of homicide for women by 500 percent. Almost two-thirds of women murdered with guns in 2010 were killed by a current or former intimate partner.
As Senator Lautenberg put it, in far too many cases, "the difference between a murdered wife and a battered wife is often the presence of a gun."
Given the severe risks that armed domestic abusers pose to their partners and children, Congress made the sensible decision to prohibit the most dangerous batterers -- those already convicted of domestic violence crimes -- from owning guns.
And, to date, the policy has worked to protect the most vulnerable members of our society. Since the national background check system was established, convictions for domestic violence misdemeanors have been second only to felony convictions as a basis for federally licensed gun dealers to deny gun sales to prohibited, would-be gun buyers. During that time, an estimated 250,000 gun sales have been stopped because the attempted buyer had been convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor.
Every one of those denials is a potential life saved.
To ensure the system continues to save lives, a broad range of groups filed friend of the court briefs like Moms Demand Action's, calling on the Supreme Court not to scale back federal law protecting domestic abuse victims. From the chiefs of police of more than 50 major American cities to leading domestic violence groups, and from the American Academy of Pediatrics to the more than 1000 Republican, Democrat, and Independent mayors from across the country in the Mayors Against Illegal Guns coalition: all these groups recognize how important it is to keep guns out of the hands of convicted abusers.
It is vitally important that the Supreme Court does not undermine this crucial public safety measure. If the Court agreed the law should only reach people convicted of "strong and violent" crimes, domestic violence convictions in nearly every state would no longer bar gun ownership. Such a decision would overrule the intent of Congress and state lawmakers who have enacted domestic violence statutes to protect defenseless women and children.
In a nutshell, the Supreme Court must decide whether to enforce the existing law, or to leave victims of convicted domestic violence criminals unprotected from horrific and deadly attacks. It shouldn't be a difficult decision.