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Machine guns and domestic violence: What is the future of gun control legislation?


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Machine guns and domestic violence: What is the future of gun control legislation?

Analysis by Julia Stronks | Professor of Political Science, Whitworth University

On June 14, the U.S. Supreme Court released a Second Amendment gun decision that is being described as “dystopian” by the left and a “decisive win” by the right.

It is neither.

But within the next two weeks a much more important gun case will be handed down that has the potential to support or vitiate gun control legislation decades into the future. What is the difference between these cases? Why do they matter?

Before I explain the cases it’s important to note that I own guns, and I am also strongly in favor of gun control legislation. So, the tests the Supreme Court sets out as to what type of gun control is legitimate are important to my understanding.

We do know that some gun control legislation is constitutional. But we do not know exactly what rules those laws must follow.

The most revered conservative Supreme Court justice of the modern day, Justice Antonin Scalia, clarified in pivotal 2008 case that obviously the Second Amendment is not absolute. For example, he said, limiting firearms in sensitive places like schools or limiting firearm possession by felons or the mentally ill is legitimate. But since 2008, the Court has not fully developed what else is and is not allowed.

Friday’s decision: Garland v. Cargill

Friday’s case was about the interpretation of a statute, not the interpretation of the Constitution. There was a federal law that referenced “machine guns” with respect to certain regulations. If a “bump stock” is added to a semi-automatic rifle, it allows a person to shoot hundreds of rounds. The question was whether the bump stock turned the semi-automatic rifle into a machine gun. The majority opinion said no. In this particular case, with this particular statute, rifles with bump stocks could not be included in what was regulated by that part of the federal law.

But the Court did not rule that the bump stocks themselves were protected. Congress can amend the statute to specifically outlaw bump stocks. In fact, at the state level bump stocks are already illegal in parts of the country. Washington State has ruled them to be illegal since 2018. And it is likely that many more states will consider this kind of legislation in the future. If the people want bump stocks to be illegal, the people can insist that legislators make it so.

The next case, though, is much more important because it interprets the Second Amendment of the Constitution. Depending on what test the Court approves and how the test is applied, the case has the potential to render a lot of current gun control legislation unconstitutional.

U.S. v. Rahimi

In this U.S. v. Rahimi, the justices will tell us whether a federal statute that prohibits possession of guns by those subject to a domestic violence restraining order violates the Second Amendment.

The most recent important Second Amendment case was in 2022. There, Justice Clarence Thomas articulated a new test to determine whether gun control legislation is constitutional. He said a law might be constitutional only if it reflected a tradition of gun regulation that went back over 100 years into American history. The law has to have a “historical analogue” to the time when the Amendment was ratified or the time when the Amendment was incorporated to bind the states. So, Rahimi is important because it will let us know first whether the majority of justices clearly accept Thomas’s test and second, how it should be applied.

In Rahimi, the government argues that keeping firearms away from people subject to domestic violence restraining orders parallels very old laws that disarm those who are not law-abiding citizens like felons or those who could be dangerous like the mentally ill. They say the law passes Thomas’ test.

Rahimi’s lawyers, however, say that going back 100 years, those accused of domestic violence were never included in laws that limited firearms. So, the law fails Thomas’ test.

If the Court holds fast to insisting there must be a close match to laws that go back in history regarding domestic violence, then almost all regulation of guns will be suspect because that exact history match is so hard to meet. But if the Court either weakens Thomas’ test or finds that domestic violence perpetrators parallel dangerous individuals like felons, that will signal gun regulation is still on the table.

Now what?

For most of us, safety related to firearms is directly related to faith and values because it saves lives. The best way to achieve firearm safety is to carefully watch Supreme Court cases and then calibrate legislation to the rules that emerge from cases. We, who believe bump stocks are an outrageous danger to society, must press our states and federal representatives to ban them. And, when Rahimi is handed down, we must research history to determine what sort of firearm legislation existed in earlier days and tie our legislation to the themes of those laws.

Julia Stronks
Julia Stronks
Julia Stronks practiced law and is a professor of political science at Whitworth University in Spokane. She writes about faith, law and public policy. Her most recent book, written with her mother Gloria Goris Stronks, Professor emeritus of Calvin College, is "Teaching to Faith, Citizenship and Civic Virtue" (Resources Publications: Wipf and Stock, 2014). Her discussion of President Trump and the Constitution can be found in the last chapter of Ron Sider’s new book "The Spiritual Danger of Donald Trump: 30 Evangelical Christians on Justice, Truth, and Moral Integrity" (Cascade Books, 2020).

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Walter A Hesford
Walter A Hesford
25 days ago

Thank you for this informative analysis. I don’t understand why justices who base their decisions on history or original intent pay no intention to the first part of the second ammendment which clearly links gun ownership to the formation of well-organized militia.

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