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One of the oddities of federal gun law is that the right to bear arms is generally taken away only for felonies, but domestic violence is treated specially, and the right to own a gun can be taken away for a misdemeanor.

A recurring problem in both gun possession law and recidivist sentencing is dealing with the wide variety of ways that crimes are defined in the 50 states and handful of almost-states that make up our federal republic.  Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court took up the "misdemeanor crime of domestic violence" question in Voisine v. United States, No. 14-10154.  Amy Howe has this post at SCOTUSblog.

Counsel for the defendants asked the Court to take two questions:

1. Does a misdemeanor crime with the mens rea of recklessness qualify as a "misdemeanor crime of domestic violence" as defined by 18 U.S.C. §§ 921(a)(33)(A) and 922(g)(9)?

2. Are 18 U.S.C. §§ 921(a)(33)(A) and 922(g)(9) unconstitutional under the Second, Fifth, and Sixth Amendments and the Ex Post Facto Clause of the United States Constitution?
Mens rea means guilty mental state, an issue we discussed last term in relation to the Elonis case.  See, e.g., this post.

The high court took the statutory question, number 1, but said "fuggetaboutit" to the constitutional question, number 2.  No treat for Second Amendment fans this Halloween.

Schizophrenia on Gun Control

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In the wake of the Oregon mass shooting, President Obama proposed new restrictions on firearms that presumptively law-abiding people want to buy.  This has been his reaction before, as the Washington Post notes. At the same time, he is, by his support for the SRCA of 2014 (the Senate's sentencing reform bill), proposing to be more lenient on gun violence when undertaken by felons (typically but not always drug dealers). Specifically, the President and other SRCA backers want dramatically to scale back the penalties of 18 USC 924(c), which at present mandates harsh punishment for carrying or using a gun in the commission of a federal felony,

Question:  Why, when the President, unfortunately with good reason, views "gun violence" as one of the nation's most serious problems, does he want to take it easier on convicted criminals who carry and/or use guns while at "work"?

The 924(c) penalties are indeed harsh, and they are mandatory. This is for a reason. The mix of guns and drugs is probably the most lethal combination known to law enforcement. The shocking murder spike of the mid-1980's, coinciding with the crack wars, knocked us out of our stupor.  Partly because, over the last 25 years, we have taken gun-totting traffickers off the street for a very long time, we have  --  guess what!  --  much safer streets. There are now 10,000 fewer murders per year in this country than there were when 924(c) punishments kicked in full time.

And what does this means to our Most Avid Gun Control President?  Time to retreat to the softer sentencing of our more gun-violent past. 

Yikes.  I guess liberals were for gun control before they were against it.
Folks opposed to laws that highly restrict or even ban firearm possession by law-abiding citizens often point to the potential of an armed citizen preventing a crime of violence.  The other side says that is very rare.

It does happen, though, and Eugene Volokh at the Volokh Conspiracy has a fine example.  The subsequent criminal case also points out a controversial aspect of the felony murder rule.

As the story begins, it is eerily similar to the Wichita Massacre case argued in the U.S. Supreme Court last week.
The academic debate on whether increased ownership of guns by law-abiding citizens reduces crime continues.  John Lott has been the leading advocate for the "yes" side of that debate.  He has a new paper on SSRN, with John Whitley and Rebehak Riley, titled Concealed Carry Permit Holders Across the United States.  The abstract follows the break.
Today the Supreme Court, 6-2-1, declared that the "residual clause" of the Armed Career Criminal Act is unconstitutional.

The ACCA has a "three strikes" provision for violent felony priors, defined as a crime punished by over a year in prison that :

(i) has as an element the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against the person of another; or

(ii) is burglary, arson, or extortion, involves use of explosives, or otherwise involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another
What the heck does that last part mean?  That's the problem.  Criminal laws need to be more clear than that, the majority says.  The rest of the law remains in force.

The case is Johnson v. United States, No. 13-7120.  Justices Kennedy and Thomas concur in the judgment overturning Johnson's sentence by applying rather than invalidating the statute.  That is, they believe the statute is constitutional but that possessing a short-barreled shotgun is not a violent felony under the statute.  Justice Alito dissents.

No Glossip today.  From a press coverage viewpoint, that's just as well, as the decision in a civil case will suck all the oxygen out of the room.  The Court has informed the press that Monday is the last day of the term, so we will definitely have a decision then.

California Gun Control Case

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Today the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit hears argument en banc in a controversial gun control case.  The summary to the three-judge panel opinion describes the case:

The panel reversed the district court's summary judgment and held that a responsible, law-abiding citizen has a right under the Second Amendment to carry a firearm in public for self-defense.

Plaintiffs challenged a County of San Diego policy which interpreted California's restriction on carrying handguns in public. California generally prohibits the open or concealed carriage of a handgun, whether loaded or unloaded, in public locations, absent the showing of, among other things, good cause. Under San Diego's policy, concern for one's personal safety alone is not considered good cause.
Ashby Jones has this article in the WSJ.  The court has this case page.  The oral argument is here.
Jessica Gresko and Ben Nuckols report for AP:

People in the nation's capital no longer have to show a good reason to get a permit to carry concealed handguns outside their homes and businesses.

The District of Columbia's police chief said Tuesday that she's dropping this requirement, a centerpiece of the city's handgun-control legislation, after a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction against it.

How about being in a jurisdiction where the murder rate is many times higher than the national average and among the highest of all American cities?  Doesn't everyone in the District have a "good reason"?

SCOTUS Tuesday

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Only one decision from the U.S. Supreme Court today.  It is an "original jurisdiction" case, states suing each other over river water:  Kansas v. Nebraska.  Still waiting on Elonis v. United States.

Today's criminal law argument has to do with the disposition of firearms seized from a defendant when the criminal case is over and the now-convicted defendant can no longer legally possess them: Henderson v. United States, No. 13-1487.
Looks like criminal law and law enforcement are going to be a bigger part of this Term of the U.S. Supreme Court.  The Court's Monday orders list took up for full briefing and argument three criminal and related cases:

Chappell v. Ayala, No. 13-1428, the Ninth Circuit decided in favor of California death row inmate Hector Ayala.   The case involves the interaction between harmless error analysis and the deference owed to state court decisions when an inmate takes his rejected claims to the federal courts on habeas corpus.  If I'm not mistaken, the Ninth Circuit's batting average in California capital cases, once certiorari is granted, is .000.

Los Angeles v. Patel, No. 13-1175:  Does a hotel have a privacy interest in its guest register, so that police cannot inspect it at will even though a local ordinance says they can?  There are a lot of heavily regulated industries that have such requirements.  The government can go through an auto wrecking yard checking the VINs for stolen vehicles, for example.  No warrant or particularized basis of suspicion required.  How about hotels?

Henderson v. United States, No. 13-1487:  What to do with a defendant's guns when, as a result of his conviction, he can no longer legally possess them?
Miguel Bustillo, Ana Campoy, and Andrew Grossman report in the WSJ:

At a news conference, Sgt. Jeremy Lewis of the Police Department in Moore, near Oklahoma City, said the suspect in the stabbing spree, Alton Nolen, began attacking workers at random after he was fired from his job at the city's Vaughan Foods Inc. processing plant around 4:05 p.m. local time on Thursday.

When police arrived, two women in the plant's front office area had been attacked and Mr. Nolen, 30, lay wounded from gunshots, Sgt. Lewis said. One of the women, Colleen Hufford, 54, was decapitated. "He did kill Colleen and did sever her head," Sgt. Lewis said.

Police determined that as Mr. Nolen attacked the second victim, Traci Johnson, 43, he was confronted and shot by the chief operating officer of Vaughan Foods, Mark Vaughan, who is a reserve Oklahoma County sheriff's deputy, Sgt. Lewis said. "This off-duty deputy definitely saved Traci's life," he said, describing Mr. Vaughan as a hero. "This was not going to stop if he didn't stop it."

Boston's Growing Murder Problem

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Since finishing up my time interning with the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation I have moved back to Boston to begin my final year at Suffolk University Law School. While back here I am a Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Rule 3.03 Certified Student Prosecutor. That basically means I intern for a local District Attorney's office with all the responsibilities and powers of an Assistant District Attorney but am always under the supervision of someone who makes sure I don't screw things up too bad. These opinions are my own and not that of CJLF, the Plymouth County District Attorney's Office, and most certainly not that of Suffolk University Law School.
I come back to a city in crisis, as the gun violence and murder rates from the summer have dwarfed, in historic proportions, the rates from the previous summer and the past several summers.

SCOTUS Wednesday

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Today, the US Supreme Court decided United States v. Castleman, No. 12-1371, a case involving the interpretation of the federal statute restricting gun ownership by a person convicted of "a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence," 18 U.S.C. §922(g)(9).  The Court holds unanimously that this includes a state conviction for "having 'intentionally or knowingly cause[d] bodily injury to' the mother of his child," reversing the Sixth Circuit.  There is some disagreement on how much further the statute reaches.

What about the Second Amendment?

Finally, Castleman suggests--in a single paragraph--that we should read §922(g)(9) narrowly because it implicates his constitutional right to keep and bear arms. But Castleman has not challenged the constitutionality of §922(g)(9), either on its face or as applied to him, and the meaning of the statute is sufficiently clear that we need not indulge Castleman's cursory nod to constitutional avoidance concerns.
Now there's a public spanking for an inadequate argument, but no precedent on the Second Amendment question.

For today's oral argument session, the Court is hearing Wood v. Moss.  Aside from its interesting name (placing it in a category with the famous Plough v. Fields and Silver v. Gold) the case is about qualified immunity for Secret Service agents who were sued for thinking that demonstrators against the President just might pose a greater threat than demonstrators for him and acting accordingly.

Update:  Adam Liptak has this article in the NYT on the argument, noting that some of the justices urged the lawyer for the government to take a bolder position than the one he was taking.

Aiding, Abetting, and Guns

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The US Supreme Court has decided Rosemond v. United States, exploring yet another facet of the federal law on use of a gun in a crime, 18 U.S.C. § 924(c).  This case involves the "what did he know, and intend, and when did he know/intend it" aspect when an accomplice to a robbery uses a gun.

We hold that the Government makes its case by proving that the defendant actively participated in the underlying drug trafficking or violent crime with advance knowledge that a confederate would use or carry a gun during the crime's commission. We also conclude that the jury instructions given below were erroneous because they failed to require that the defendant knew in advance that one of his cohorts would be armed.
*                              *                           *
An active participant in a drug transaction has the intent needed to aid and abet a §924(c) violation when he knows that one of his confederates will carry a gun. In such a case, the accomplice has decided to join in the criminal venture, and share in its benefits, with full awareness of its scope--that the plan calls not just for a drug sale, but for an armed one. In so doing, he has chosen ... to align himself with the illegal scheme in its entirety--including its use of a firearm.
In practice, proving that a participant knew in advance that another participant was armed is going to require accomplice testimony in nearly every case, with all the problems that entails.

Defending Statutes

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HolderDaisy.jpgTwo weeks ago, a divided panel of the Ninth Circuit declared California's law on carrying guns in public to be unconstitutional in Peruta v. San Diego, No. 10-56971.  Judge O'Scannlain's opinion begins, "We are called upon to decide whether a responsible, law-abiding citizen has a right under the Second Amendment to carry a firearm in public for self-defense."  He and Judge Callahan answer yes.  Judge Thomas dissents.

The San Diego Sheriff announced he would not seek rehearing en banc.  The California Attorney General has now moved to intervene and petitioned for rehearing en banc.

In my view, the AG is entirely correct to do this regardless of where one stands on the underlying question.  The proper operation of our system of separation of powers requires a defense of statutes when they are challenged judicially, and it is the Attorney General's duty to make that defense as long as one can reasonably be made.  It is dereliction of duty for AGs to refuse to defend statutes merely because they agree with the plaintiffs on close questions of constitutional law or, even worse, merely because they oppose the policy behind the statute.  The United States Attorney General notoriously failed to defend the anti-Miranda statute in the Dickerson case back in 1999.  That was very wrong, even though the case ultimately ended with the statute being struck down.

In this case, I have no doubt that Ms. Harris supports the policy behind the statute, so the disagreement issue is not presented.  However, I expect she will be criticized for defending it, so I wanted to state up front that her decision to make the case for the statute's constitutionality is correct, in my view.

Oh, BTW, the case is a slam dunk for rehearing en banc.
Friday, I previewed the capital cases on the list for the U.S. Supreme Court's "long conference" yesterday. None were taken up in the short orders list released today.  Denials of certiorari (i.e., the Supreme Court declining to take the case and letting the lower court judgment stand) usually come out in the long list released when the Court formally convenes for its new term, the first Monday in October.

There was one exception to the denials-later practice today.  The Court turned down the case of Florida murderer Marshall Gore.  As noted in the prior post, Gore's claim of mental incompetence has been found to be "patently a fabrication."  He is scheduled for execution today.

The other capital cases will probably be denied Monday, although one or more might be "relisted" to be considered again at a future conference.

The case of a traffic stop based on an anonymous call is described in a separate post.

The Court also took up the case of United States v. Castleman, No. 12-1371, another variation on the federal statute barring gun possession by people with certain convictions, in this case a "misdemeanor crime of domestic violence."  This appears to be a pure statutory interpretation argument, not involving the constitutional question of whether Congress has the authority to micromanage who is allowed to possess a gun.

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