November 13, 2008
Charleston Gazette Editorial
West Virginia is at the heart of a national showdown over wife-beating and guns.
Charleston lawyer Troy Giatras went before the U.S. Supreme Court to defend a Marion County construction worker who was convicted of misdemeanor battery of his wife in 1994 – then was found to have a rifle when police answered another domestic violence complaint in 2004. Federal law bans wife-beaters from possessing guns, and a 1996 amendment extended the law to domestic misdemeanors as well as felonies.
The 1996 change was drafted by Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., who said: “There is no reason for someone who beats their wife or abuses their children to own a gun. When you combine wife-beaters and guns, the result is more death.”
Giatras contends that the revised law doesn’t apply to his client because he was convicted of battery, not domestic violence. The Fourth Circuit federal court in Richmond agreed, reversing the Marion man’s 2004 conviction. But the Justice Department appealed to the Supreme Court.
Police and gun-control groups flocked to the case. They’re alarmed because many brutality episodes around America are plea-bargained down to simple battery, not domestic violence. The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence warned that the Richmond ruling “could re-arm thousands of convicted domestic violence abusers.” In a brief joined by police organizations, it declared:
“On average, more than three people are killed by intimate partners every day in this country. Intimate partner homicides account for up to one-half of all homicides of females. Every year, between 1,000 and 1,600 women die at the hands of their male partners, and 14 percent of all police officer deaths occur during responses to domestic violence calls.”
When the case was argued Monday before the Supreme Court, Justice Department lawyer Nicole Saharsky said neither families nor police officers should face “the powder keg situation of a domestic offender with a gun.” If the Richmond ruling stands, she said, the 1996 safeguard law will be “a dead letter in two-thirds of the states.”
Conservative Justice Antonin Scalia – who wrote a June opinion saying Americans have an individual right to carry pistols – disputed her. He said gun ownership is “lawful conduct,” adding that the West Virginia case was “not that serious an offense.”
She shot back that the West Virginian “hit his wife all around the face until it swelled out, kicked her all around her body, kicked her in the ribs.” Scalia retorted: “Then he should have been charged with a felony – but he wasn’t.”
Charleston lawyer Giatras says the Marion man wants the rifle only “to go hunting with his sons.” That sounds harmless. But the specter of danger to women and police hangs in the background. The Republican-dominated Supreme Court voted 5-4 last summer to let millions of people carry pistols. We wonder how justices will rule on this significant West Virginia case.
More information on this case
United States v. Hayes, Docket No. 07-608
Whether, to qualify as a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” under 18 U.S.C. 921(a)(33)(A), an offense must have as an element a domestic relationship between the offender and the victim.
Brief for the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, International Association of Chiefs of Police, Major Cities Chiefs, National Sheriffs’ Association, National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, the Hispanic American Police Command Officers Association, the Police Executive Research Forum, National Black Police Association, National Latino Peace Officers Association, Legal Community Against Violence and the School Safety Advocacy Council in Support of Petitioner
Brief for United States Senators Frank R. Lautenberg, Diane Fienstein, and Patty Murray in Support of Petitioner