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Gun safety advocates hopeful after Supreme Court upholds law protecting domestic violence victims

Various guns are displayed at a store in Auburn, Maine, on July 18, 2022.
Robert F. Bukaty
/
AP file
Various guns are displayed at a store in Auburn, Maine, on July 18, 2022.

Gun safety advocates in Maine and across the country say that the U.S. Supreme Court's recent decision upholding a law designed to protect domestic violence victims will put guardrails on an earlier ruling that dramatically expanded gun rights.

The court's 8-1 decision in the United States v. Rahimi effectively upholds a federal law that allows the government to confiscate firearms from people under domestic violence restraining orders.

A Texas appeals court had argued that the 2nd Amendment protects domestic abusers' right to firearms. And it cited the high court's 2022 Bruen ruling, which established new standards to assess the constitutionality of gun control laws.

Margaret Groban, a former federal prosecutor who teaches a course on firearm regulations and the 2nd Amendment at the University of Maine School of Law, said Bruen created chaos in lower courts because some were reaching different conclusions about the same gun laws and regulations. She said that's because the high court initially appeared to rule that gun laws are only constitutional if courts can find a historical analogue in the country's founding.

Margaret Groban, a former federal prosecutor who now teaches a class about firearms regulation and the 2nd Amendment at the University of Maine School of Law, at her home in South Portland. Groban is also a member of the Maine Gun Safety Coalition.
Steve Mistler / Maine Public
Margaret Groban, a former federal prosecutor who now teaches a class about firearms regulation and the 2nd Amendment at the University of Maine School of Law, at her home in South Portland. Groban is also a member of the Maine Gun Safety Coalition.

But she said the Rahimi ruling clarifies the constitutionality test, applying it to the founding principles of gun regulation — not an exact match contemplated in the 18th century.

"And so Rahimi for the first time said you don't need a historical analogue, you need to be consistent with the principles of the founders. And those principles were disarming dangerous people," she said.

Groban, who is also a member of the Maine Gun Safety Coalition, said it's too soon to tell how the Rahimi ruling will affect legal challenges to state gun laws, including one prospective lawsuit targeting a new three-day waiting period law passed by the Legislature this spring. That's because such laws aren't dealing with criminal statutes like the domestic violence confiscation law at issue in Rahimi.

However, she said the latter ruling is a good sign for the more than 20 states that have extreme risk protection order, or red flag laws, which allow police and family members to petition courts to remove guns from dangerous people.

Maine has a unique and more restrictive version of an extreme risk protection order law referred to as a "yellow flag law." The law only allows police to initiate a weapons seizure after taking a person into protective custody, a mental health evaluation and authorization from a judge. The law has been criticized for being too cumbersome and it was not used in the events leading up to the Lewiston shootings that killed 18 people in the worst mass shooting in state history.

The commission investigating the massacre argued in its interim report that the law should have been used and might have prevented the tragedy.

Efforts to pass a red flag law have stalled in the Maine Legislature, including this year when a bill introduced late in the session failed to get a vote in the House or Senate. Gun safety groups have vowed to introduce another version next year.
 
Nevertheless, Groban, who also served on the Maine Domestic Violence Homicide Review, said the Rahimi ruling should provide some comfort to domestic violence victims who obtain restraining orders against their alleged abusers.

"When a victim does get a protection order it's a dangerous time for them if the abuser were to have access to firearms," she said.

In a statement, U.S. Attorney for Maine Darcie McElwee said her office has consistently used the domestic violence confiscation law since its enactment in 1994.

"As Attorney General Merrick B. Garland emphasized on Friday, the Justice Department, and this office, will continue to enforce this important statute, which for nearly 30 years has helped to protect victims and survivors of domestic violence from their abusers," she said. "Individuals in Maine subject to a domestic-violence restraining order should know that if they possess firearms while subject to such an order, they face prosecution in federal court."

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.