Focus on the Law: Domestic Violence and Firearms

By Sharon Frankenberg,
Attorney at Law

The 1996 Lautenberg Amendment to the federal Gun Control Act prohibits individuals who have been convicted of a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” from purchasing, transporting, or possessing any firearms which have been affected by or affects interstate commerce. The statute is found at Title 18 United States Code Section 922(g)(9). The statute defines “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” to include any federal, state or tribal offense committed by a person with a specified domestic relationship to the victim that has an element, the use or attempted use of physical force, or the threatened use of a deadly weapon.

United States versus James Alvin Castleman is criminal appeal ultimately decided by the United States Supreme Court last year. The issue was whether the Lautenberg Amendment requires the misdemeanor conviction to involve physical violence and whether a state misdemeanor conviction under Tennessee’s domestic assault statute qualifies to trigger application of the Amendment. The history of the case is that in 2001 Castleman pled guilty in Tennessee state court to misdemeanor domestic assault for intentionally or knowingly causing bodily injury to the mother of his child. He was sentenced to 11 months and 29 days which was served and completed on supervised probation. He later testified that the judge did not tell him when he pled guilty to domestic assault that he might be found liable under federal law if he possessed a firearm at a later date. He claimed he never would have pled guilty if he had known of that consequence.

Seven years after his domestic assault conviction federal agents discovered that Castleman and his wife were buying firearms and selling them on the black market. His wife allegedly lied on the federal forms claiming to be the real buyer, purchased the weapons and turned them over to Castleman. One of these firearms was recovered in Chicago potentially satisfying the interstate commerce element of the crime.

Castleman was indicted on two counts of possession of a firearm in violation of 18 U.S.C. Section 922(g)(9). The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee dismissed the two counts. The district court reasoned that Castleman’s misdemeanor conviction for domestic assault under Tennessee state law did not qualify as a domestic violence crime requiring the use or attempted use of physical force. The case was appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit which affirmed the district court. The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari to hear the case and, in a unanimous decision, disagreed with the lower courts. The Supreme Court held that, consistent with its previous ruling in Johnson vs. United States, even offensive touching may qualify as violence where the required element is the use or attempted use of physical force as it is under the Tennessee statute. Here, the victim was his child’s mother so it was clearly a specified domestic relationship and Castleman intentionally or knowingly caused bodily injury which necessarily involved the use of physical force. The prohibition on Castleman possessing firearms was upheld.

You should consult an attorney if you want to know if or how this law applies to you. Sharon Frankenberg is an experienced civil attorney licensed in Tennessee since 1988. She is a sole practitioner who handles foreclosure, evictions, probate, collections and general litigation. She represents Social Security claimants and represents creditors in bankruptcy proceedings. Her office is in Knoxville and she may be reached at (865)539-2100.

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