Daily Herald opinion: High court offers some protection on gun violence

The U.S. Supreme Court took a step last Friday toward acknowledging that the true best defense against a bad guy with a gun is to make sure a bad guy doesn’t get a gun in the first place. And the result may lead to some help for domestic violence victims in Illinois.

The case before the court involved one-time bad guy Zackey Rahimi. From prison, Rahimi said he has reformed now, but in 2019, records show he was a drug dealer from Texas who dragged his girlfriend by the hair across a parking lot, fired a gun shot when he realized there were witnesses and later threatened to shoot her if she told anyone. He was ordered to stay away from the woman and prohibited from possessing firearms, but within a two-month period between December 2020 and January 2021, authorities say he threatened several people and was involved in at least five shootings. When they went to his residence to arrest him for violating the protection order, they found a loaded Glock and a rifle. He was eventually convicted on gun charges and sentenced to prison, but he appealed, contending the U.S. Constitution prohibits the courts from restricting his access to guns.

Local courts dismissed his appeal for the appalling gall that it was, but the Fifth Circuit appeals court sided with him, citing a 2022 Supreme Court ruling that forbids restrictions on gun ownership unless they are, in the words of the opinion’s author Clarence Thomas, “consistent with the nation’s historical tradition of firearm regulation.”

Not surprisingly, the ruling has led to confusion and inconsistency in courts across the country, with the Rahimi case a prime example. But on Friday, the Supreme Court interjected some sanity into the debate. In an 8-1 ruling with Thomas the lone dissenter, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote for the majority that gun laws “are not trapped in amber,” so states and other legal jurisdictions have some leeway “when a restraining order contains a finding that an individual poses a credible threat to the physical safety of an intimate partner.”

That leeway, apparently, extends only “while a protective order is in effect,” but at least it' does move the needle toward some point of clarity regarding the test of “the nation’s historical tradition of firearm regulation.”

The Rahimi ruling doesn't do a great deal to improve things, beyond, let's acknowledge, at least providing one historical parallel for firearm regulation on who should get to own firearms. But it does at least open the door for arguments that not every U.S. citizen should have an unfettered right to maintain a cache of life-threatening firearms.

As Capitol News Illinois reports, it also, along with some negotiated fixes, clears a path for revival of stalled anti-domestic violence legislation co-sponsored by Batavia Democratic state Rep. Maura Hirschauer. The so-called Katrina’s Bill would, among other things, require law enforcement officers to take guns from individuals under certain orders of protection. Prior to the high court ruling, the constitutionality of such action would have been open to question.

“(Karina’s Bill) will provide clear guidance for getting guns out of the hands of abusers, and ensure those weapons are removed sooner — all within a framework that justices have now overwhelmingly endorsed,” Hirschauer said in a prepared statement.

Indeed, the ruling makes a significant and resounding statement that 21st century attitudes toward guns are not policy-bound to adhere to 18th century social and technological circumstances.

“Some courts have misunderstood the methodology of our recent Second Amendment cases,” Roberts wrote, adding that “when a challenged regulation does not precisely match its historical precursors, it still may be analogous enough to pass constitutional muster.”

Thomas’ singular view of constitutional “originalism,” essentially declaring unenforceable any gun regulations not practiced at the birth of the nation, clearly places the abstraction of literal interpretation of a 248-year-old document over the sanctity of modern human life and public safety. The Fifth Circuit court apparently believed it had to follow that view with Rahimi in order to be consistent with the latest Supreme Court position on gun control. Thankfully, the high court has now disabused lower courts of that restrictive view.

It hasn’t done much to definitively protect the public from dangerous firearms abuses, and it still offers plenty of room for various courts’ differing assessments of just what qualifies as “analogous enough” to permit regulation. But it at least has given states and local courts permission to sanction known scofflaws who pose a specific threat.

Perhaps that will give local courts some confidence in asserting control in gun cases and will lend states some needed authority on so-called “red flag” laws governing individuals who have shown a clear potential for endangering lives. Bad guys, in other words.

Who are best thwarted by making it harder, if not impossible, to threaten their girlfriends, their personal enemies or anybody else with firearm violence.

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