Femicide, Firearms, and the Fifth Circuit

December 13, 2023CJ Wechsler

In October 2023, the Violence Policy Center published its review of 25 years of female homicide victimization in the United States from 1996 to 2020. Of note, they found that 92 percent of female victims knew their male killers, 61 percent of which were an intimate partner. Killed at a rate nearly three times that of white females, Black females were disproportionately victimized, representing 31 percent of females killed by males despite making up 14 percent of the female population. Significantly, the majority (53 percent) of female victims were killed with a gun.

A month later, on November 7, 2023, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in United States v. Rahimi, a landmark case with ramifications related to domestic violence and access to firearms. In 2020, a Texas court issued a domestic violence protective order against Zackey Rahimi after finding that he was guilty of being violent toward his then-girlfriend and was likely to be violent in the future. Federal law bans individuals with domestic violence protective orders from possessing firearms or ammunition, a prohibition that Rahimi quickly violated when he committed five more shootings. Rahimi was then convicted of illegally possessing a firearm. On appeal, the Fifth Circuit Court ruled that the ban is an unconstitutional violation of the Second Amendment, dangerously applying last year’s Supreme Court fateful decision in NYSRPA v. Bruen.

The 2022 Bruen ruling held that gun regulations must align with “historical tradition,” but left ambiguity regarding how or to what extent to compare contemporary cases to historical law. Rather than interpret historical laws prioritizing public safety as grounding for cases like Rahimi’s, the Fifth Circuit’s decision calls for a meticulous examination of modern cases in terms of precise historical tradition, rather than drawing parallels based on shared objectives. Essentially, the Fifth Circuit extrapolated Bruen to mean the absence of an 18th-century ban on domestic abusers owning guns renders today’s ban unconstitutional, concluding “our ancestors would never have accepted” it. If the Fifth Circuit’s decision is upheld, individuals with domestic violence protection orders would no longer be prohibited from possessing firearms, regardless of the status of the relationship – gutting gun safety laws that have been in place for the last three decades to protect survivors of domestic violence. However, oral arguments last month left advocates cautiously optimistic that the majority of the Court may agree with the government’s argument that a “history and tradition” of disarming “those who have committed serious criminal conduct” is enough to uphold current law. Until June, we are still left in the uncertainty of how the Court may—or may not—address the ambiguity of Bruen.

In addition to the risks U.S. v Rahimi poses to expanding firearm access to all abusers, dangerous gaps already exist in protections for survivors and future victims. Gun violence and intimate partner violence are closely intertwined. A male abuser’s access to a firearm increases a woman’s risk of being killed by 500%. According to Everytown for Gun Safety data analysis, nearly one million women in the U.S. who are alive today have reported being shot or shot at by an intimate partner. Current legislation generally prohibits individuals with domestic violence convictions from obtaining firearms. However, this legislation narrowly defines a domestic abuser as someone the survivor lived with, married, or had a child with. The intimate partner loophole (also known as the "boyfriend loophole") refers to the legal gap that allows certain individuals convicted of domestic violence offenses or subject to restraining orders to still acquire and possess firearms. Abusive partners who have not lived with, married, or had a child with the survivor are not prohibited from obtaining firearms despite a history of domestic violence. This loophole allows potentially dangerous individuals to access firearms and poses a risk to the safety of domestic violence survivors. Efforts to close the intimate partner loophole seek to extend firearm regulations to cover all romantic relationships. 

As Reform Jews, it is our duty to demand common-sense gun legislation. The Talmud teaches us that to take one life destroys the universe, and to save one life saves the universe (paraphrased from Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5). The Book of Isaiah also teaches that weapons must be replaced with tools that allow for the betterment of our communities and society, commanding people to “beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks” (Isaiah 2:4).

In the current landscape of femicide, firearms, and the Fifth Circuit’s Rahimi ruling, our Jewish faith and moral imperative compels us to stand up for survivors and against future gun violence.

Protections afforded by the law must remain steadfast, preventing the potential expansion of firearm access to abusers and bridging the gaps in safeguarding all survivors.

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