On March 26, 2014, the Supreme Court released its slip opinion of United States v. Castleman regarding a challenge to the federal gun ban for individuals convicted of “a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence.” 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(9). The ban prohibits an individual convicted of such a crime from possessing any firearm if the crime “has…the use or attempted use of physical force….” 18 U.S.C. §922(a)(33)(A). The ban was specifically enacted in response to “a million acts of domestic violence, and hundreds of deaths from domestic violence, each year.” United States v. Castleman, 572 U.S. __, 1 (2014).
Justice Sonia Sotomayor delivered the unanimous opinion of the court, which broadened the definition of “physical force” and ruled that James Castleman’s gun charges be reinstated. In 2001, James Castleman of Tennessee pled guilty to intentionally causing bodily injury to the mother of his child. In 2008, Castleman was charged with violating the federal gun ban for selling firearms on the black market, but argued that his 2001 conviction did not count as “a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” because it didn’t have the element of “physical force”.
The reasoning behind the broad interpretation of “physical force” was based on differing state laws regarding the level and type of force required for an arrest on misdemeanor domestic violence charges. In many states, domestic violence acts are prosecuted as crimes of “offensive touching,” which wouldn’t have previously fallen under the “physical force” terminology utilized in the federal statute. Although Tennessee’s misdemeanor domestic violence assault statute does not have “physical force” as an element to the crime, Justice Sotomayor recognized the unique nature of domestic violence and found that the Congressional definition was to be broadened to include minor acts that don’t necessarily constitute “violence” in the generic sense. The opinion even recognized that pushing, grabbing, shoving, scratching, or hair pulling could be among such minor acts when committed over time and used to gain a certain degree of control over another individual.
Although the interpretation of the term “physical force” might appear broad and maybe even overreaching, this decision has already been dubbed landmark and critical in the crusade to end domestic violence across the United States. Perhaps even more noteworthy is the fact that a woman, Justice Sotomayor, wrote the majority opinion and intertwined the underlying concerns of domestic violence victims into the text. This case gave Justice Sotomayor a platform to educate America about the cycle of domestic violence and exposed the reality that affects women of all walks of life. This United States Supreme Court decision will keep guns out of the hands of all those individuals convicted of domestic violence crimes, whether violent or not, and ensure that victims are not placed in further, serious danger.
-- HWLJ staff editor