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Supreme Court to hear arguments in case that could limit Congress on gun control

Justices take on the first gun control challenge since their landmark Second Amendment ruling last year

Visitors walk across the Supreme Court plaza to enter the building in October.
Visitors walk across the Supreme Court plaza to enter the building in October. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Corrected 6:00 p.m. | The Supreme Court hears oral arguments Tuesday in a case that could limit the legislative and political power of Congress and local lawmakers to regulate gun possession nationwide.

The case, U.S. v. Rahimi, is the first of dozens of challenges to federal and state gun control laws to reach the justices since their decision last year in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen.

An appeals court leaned on the reasoning of that Bruen decision to strike down as unconstitutional a decades-old law that bans gun possession for anyone subject to certain domestic violence restraining orders.

The Biden administration, members of Congress and legal experts have said a Supreme Court ruling against the domestic violence law could restrict what else Congress could do to address gun violence nationwide.

Andrew Willinger, executive director of the Duke Center for Firearms Law, said the arguments in the case implicate a broad range of federal prohibitions on gun possession, including the ban for convicted felons.

A ruling that tosses those prohibitions could ossify the already intractable politics around gun control, Willinger said.

“I’m not really sure where Congress goes from there. I think maybe the focus shifts to the similar provisions in effect at the state level,” Willinger said.

Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., said a ruling against the law also could disrupt the political dynamic of such legislation because gun rights groups likely would use it for wider advocacy against gun control legislation.

“If there is a broader sense that the Supreme Court is beginning to move in an action that restricts our range of action for gun safety, that may create a political sense that this is just not something we are going to be able to legislate on,” Coons said.

Coons, a member of the Judiciary Committee, said such a decision also could affect the dynamic between lawmakers when discussing what legislation would be possible. That would be “a big step backwards, and that would make any future progress even less likely,” he said.

A bipartisan gun violence reduction law that was enacted last year arose out of specific conversations between legislators in response to mass shootings, Coons said.

That gun violence prevention bill included only a handful of gun control provisions, such as expanding background checks for gun purchasers under age 21 to include records from when they were minors. Still, the bill, along with the Violence Against Women Act reauthorization last year, contained the first gun control provisions to pass into law in years.

Coons was one of the bipartisan sponsors of that reauthorization law, which increased notification requirements for failed background checks. He said the best hope for passing more legislation would have to come after next year’s elections.

Even before the case, other members of Congress have downplayed the possibility of further gun control legislation this year. In response to a shooting spree in Lewiston, Maine, on Oct. 25, Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., said “now is not the time for legislation,” and House Republicans updated a spending bill set for floor debate this month with several provisions that seek to curb gun control enforcement.

Conviction challenged

The case set for argument Tuesday comes out of a Biden administration appeal of a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit that tossed out the gun possession conviction of Zackey Rahimi.

The 5th Circuit panel found that the statute violated Rahimi’s Second Amendment rights, based on the Supreme Court’s decision in Bruen, which said in part that gun control had to focus on the text and “historical tradition” of the Second Amendment.

Briefs in the Supreme Court in the Rahimi case frequently have their own analysis of the history.

Rahimi’s attorneys urged the Supreme Court to adopt the 5th Circuit’s view that focused on a history where domestic abusers may suffer criminal or social consequences, but not be disarmed.

“American jurisdictions did not ban firearm possession for citizens who retained their position in the political community,” Rahimi’s brief said.

Rahimi’s brief also argued at one point that the Constitution doesn’t give Congress the power to take away other constitutional rights.

“Congress cannot completely ban protective-order respondents from speaking, assembling, petitioning, going to church, traveling to other states, voting, holding public office, filing a lawsuit, giving testimony, or voting. That means Congress cannot completely ban them from keeping weapons either,” Rahimi wrote.

Members of Congress said they have relied on the law Rahimi has challenged for decades, in a brief from Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., and Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., in the case.

The group argued that Congress had enacted the law “through a bipartisan and deliberative legislative process, and Congress has continued to build on that foundation in a deliberative and bipartisan manner.”

The Biden administration argued in a brief that Congress has long had the power to disarm people who are not responsible citizens.

“Although different statutes disqualified different groups at different times, they reflect the same enduring principle: Legislatures may disarm those who are not law-abiding, responsible citizens,” the brief said.

Willinger pointed out that the Biden administration’s argument is broader than may be needed to defend the civil domestic violence order statute, hinting that the Supreme Court may soon hear cases on a broad range of federal gun prohibitions.

The justices also set themselves up to decide another gun restriction case Friday, agreeing to decide a challenge to a Trump-era rule on “bump stocks,” devices that allow a rifle to fire multiple times with one press of a trigger, on grounds that it violates federal law.

This report was corrected to accurately reflect the date of the Lewistown, Maine shootings.

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