U.S. Supreme Court Upholds Domestic Violence Gun Conviction

The Supreme Court on Tuesday upheld the conviction of a West Virginia man for violating a federal law barring people convicted in domestic violence cases from possessing firearms.

In a 7-2 vote, the court ruled that a federal appeals court in Richmond, Va., wrongly threw out the conviction of Randy Edward Hayes. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the majority opinion. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Antonin Scalia dissented.

The federal government, gun control groups and women's rights advocates worried that a ruling for Hayes would have weakened the federal law enacted in 1996 that applied the 40-year-old ban on gun possession by a felon to people convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Hayes' favor because the West Virginia state law on battery under which he was convicted did not contain specific wording about a domestic relationship between the offender and the victim.

Nine other appeals courts rejected that interpretation.

There was no dispute, however, that the victim in the 1994 crime was his then-wife.

Ten years later, police summoned to Hayes's home in response to a domestic violence 911 call found a Winchester rifle belonging to Hayes. They later discovered that he had possessed at least four other rifles following the 1994 case.

He was indicted on federal charges of possessing firearms following conviction of misdemeanor domestic violence, a reference to the 1994 case.

The case turned on whether the conviction for domestic violence that gives rise to the gun ban can be under a generic law against the use of force. Or, must the state law be aimed specifically at spousal abuse or domestic relationships.

Ginsburg said such specificity "would frustrate Congress' manifest purpose. Firearms and domestic strife are a potentially deadly combination nationwide."

In dissent, Roberts said the federal law is ambiguous and that the case should have been resolved in Hayes' favor. "Ten years in jail is too much to hinge on the will-o'-the-wisp of statutory meaning pursued by the majority," Roberts said.

The case is U.S. v. Hayes, 07-608.