“Reckless” Domestic Assault Now Qualifies for Federal Firearm Restrictions

“Firearms and Domestic Strife are a Potentially Deadly Combination,” says the Supreme Court

Voisine Reckless Assault Firearm BanVoisine v. United States (US Supreme Court, 2016)

Voisine v. United States consolidates two domestic violence-related cases from Maine. In both cases, the petitioner-defendants were previously charged with “reckless” misdemeanor assaults, and both were found later to own guns in violation of a federal statute prohibiting gun ownership by those convicted of domestic violence. The Supreme Court weighed the differences between intentional and knowing domestic assaults versus a reckless “heat of passion” type assault to reach it’s conclusion.

Voisine’s Domestic Violence Case

In 2004, Stephen Voisine was charged with and convicted of a domestic violence assault of his girlfriend, in violation of §207 of the Maine Criminal Code, which penalizes “intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly causing bodily injury or offensive physical contact to another person.” Me. Rev. Stat. Ann. Tit. 17-A, §207(1)(A). A few years later, Voisine killed a bald eagle—a federal offense. During the investigation of the bald eagle crime, investigators discovered Voisine owned a rifle. Background checks reflected his prior domestic violence conviction, so prosecutors charged him with violating 18 U.S.C. §922(g)(9).

Armstrong’s Domestic Violence Case

In 2008, William Armstrong pleaded guilty to a domestic violence assault of his wife, in violation of the Maine Criminal Code. A few years later, law enforcement was investigating a narcotics ring, and discovered six guns and ammunition on Armstrong’s property. Like Voisine, Armstrong was charged with violating 18 U.S.C. §922(g)(9), unlawfully possessing firearms.

The Big Issue before the Supreme Court – Is there a difference between “Reckless” domestic violence and “Intentional” domestic violence for 922(g)(9)?

Both Voisine and Armstrong appealed their respective cases to the First Circuit, arguing that they were “not subject to the federal firearm prohibition described in §922(g)(9) because their prior convictions could have been based on reckless, rather than knowing and intentional, conduct.” United States v. Armstrong, 706 F.3d 1, 4 (2013); United States v. Voisine, 495 Fed. Appx. 101, 102 (2013) (per curiam).

After several appeals in Maine, both Voisine and Armstrong filed a petition to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court granted the petition for review, specifically to resolve a circuit split over the issue at hand.

The Supreme Court must determine whether misdemeanor assault convictions for reckless domestic assaults invoke the federal firearms ban. What difference, if any, is there between intentional and knowing assaults versus a reckless assault? Does the type of assault even matter?

What is the current law regarding Federal firearm restrictions after a conviction for a domestic violence incident?

Under Federal law, any person convicted of a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” is prohibited from possessing a firearm. 18 U.S.C. §922(g)(9). This includes any misdemeanor that involves the “use of physical force.” §921(a)(33)(A).

The Supreme Court Weighs In

In the opinion released Tuesday, the Supreme Court discusses the mens rea (state of mind) for a reckless domestic violence assault, which a is “conscious disregard of a substantial risk that the conduct will cause harm to another.” ALI, Model Penal Code §2.02(2)(c) (1962). Reckless conduct, the Court says, is not an accident. Reckless conduct involves a deliberate decision to endanger others. Reckless conduct involves making a decision—it is a purposeful act.

Here, the Supreme Court holds that yes, misdemeanor assault convictions for reckless domestic assaults do trigger the federal firearms ban, for two main reasons.

I. It’s Common Sense–Plain Language Read of the Statute Renders this Result

Both Voisine and Armstrong took issue with the phrase “use of force”—namely the word “use.” However, “nothing in the word “use” indicated that the federal firearm ban applies exclusively to misdemeanor assaults that are knowingly or intentionally committed,” says the Supreme Court. Further, “dictionaries consistently define the noun “use” to mean the act of employing something.” Webster’s New Int’l. Dictionary 2806 (2d ed. 1954); Random House Dictionary of the English Lang. 2097 (2d ed. 1987); Black’s Law Dictionary 1541 (6th ed. 1990). “On that common understanding, the force used [in an assault] must be volitional.” In sum, a person who “assaults another recklessly uses force, no less than one who carries out that same action knowingly or intentionally.”

II. Congress Intended to Include All Types of Misdemeanor Domestic Assaults in §922(g)(1).

The federal firearm ban for those convicted of misdemeanor domestic assaults was enacted by Congress in the late 90s to “close a dangerous loophole in gun control laws.” United States v. Castleman, 572 U.S. __, __ (2014)(slip op., at 2)(quoting United States v. Hayes, 555 U.S. 415, 426 (2009)). At the time, a law prohibiting those with felony domestic violence convictions was already on the books. §922(g)(1)(1994 ed.).

Unfortunately, says the Court, many domestic violence assaults are prosecuted as misdemeanor crimes or have a statutory penalty that results in misdemeanor convictions, “notwithstanding the harmfulness of their conduct.” Castleman, 572 U.S. at __(slip op. at 2). Using the Commerce Clause of the US Constitution as a hook for the law, Congress added the federal firearm ban for any person “convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence…from possessing any gun or ammunition with a connection to interstate commerce.”

Further, Congress defined “misdemeanor crime” as any misdemeanor under federal, state, or tribal law, committed by a person with a…domestic relationship with the victim that has…physical force.” In sum, the “statutory text and background alike lead us to conclude that a reckless domestic assault qualifies as a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” under federal statutes.

Dissenters in the Crowd

Supreme Court Justices Thomas and Sotomayor disagreed with the majority. Both Justices aver that mere recklessness should not invoke a firearm ban because “recklessness does not necessarily involve the use of physical force.” [The Supreme Court] has routinely defined “use” in a way that makes clear the conduct must be intentional. Bailey v. United States, 516 U.S. 137 (1995). “The use of physical force against a family member refers to intentional acts of violence against a family member.”