Why one survivor of domestic violence wants the Supreme Court to uphold a gun control law

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Ruth Glenn, a domestic violence survivor, speaks with The Associated Press as she discusses a case before the Supreme Court that is focused on a law aiming to keep guns out of the hands of abusers, in Washington, Monday, Oct. 23, 2023. Glenn is the president of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON – Ruth Glenn knows from harrowing personal experience the danger of putting a gun in the hands of a violent spouse or partner, the issue at the heart of a case before the Supreme Court.

On a beautiful June evening in 1992, Glenn was shot three times, twice in the head, and left for dead outside a Denver car wash.

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The shooter was her estranged husband, Cedric, who was under a court order to stay away from Glenn. But there was no federal law on the books at the time that prohibited him from having a gun.

Two years later, Congress put such a law in place, prohibiting people facing domestic violence restraining orders from having guns. “He would not have been able to access that gun if we had these current laws in place,” Glenn said in an interview with The Associated Press that took place outside the Supreme Court.

The high court is hearing arguments Tuesday in a challenge to the 1994 law. The closely watched case is the first one involving guns to reach the justices since their landmark Bruen decision last year expanded gun rights and changed the way courts evaluate whether restrictions on firearms violate the constitutional right to “keep and bear arms.”

Glenn, the president of Survivor Justice Action, is allied with gun control groups that are backing the Biden administration's defense of the law.

Gun rights organizations are supporting Zackey Rahimi, the Texas man whose challenge to the law led to the Supreme Court case.

The law has blocked nearly 77,800 firearm sales over the last 25 years, said Shira Feldman, director of constitutional litigation at the gun-violence prevention group Brady.

“At stake here is a law that works and that has been supported by both Republicans and Democrats in Congress,” Feldman said.

Firearms are the most common weapon used in homicides of spouses, intimate partners, children or relatives in recent years, according to data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Guns were used in more than half, 57%, of those killings in 2020, a year that saw an overall increase in domestic violence during the coronavirus pandemic.

Seventy women a month, on average, are shot and killed by intimate partners, according to the gun control group Everytown for Gun Safety.

A gun, though, is more than just a potential source of violence, Glenn said, recalling how her husband threatened her and her then-teenage son, David, repeatedly.

“I think sometimes we forget and we look at the firearm as this tool of lethality, which it is absolutely. But it’s also even more powerful as a tool of control,” Glenn said.

Rahimi’s case reached the Supreme Court after prosecutors appealed a ruling that threw out his conviction for possessing guns while subject to a restraining order.

Rahimi was involved in five shootings over two months in and around Arlington, Texas, U.S. Circuit Judge Cory Wilson noted. When police identified Rahimi as a suspect in the shootings and showed up at his home with a search warrant, Rahimi admitted both to having guns in the house and being subject to a domestic violence restraining order that prohibited gun possession, Wilson wrote.

But even though Rahimi was hardly “a model citizen,” Wilson wrote, the law at issue could not be justified by looking to history. That's the test Justice Clarence Thomas laid out in his opinion for the court in Bruen.

The appeals court initially upheld the conviction under a balancing test that included whether the restriction enhances public safety. But the panel reversed course after Bruen. At least one district court has upheld the law since the Bruen decision.

Rahimi’s case, and the subject of domestic violence may offer the government the optimal situation for defending gun restrictions, said Hashim Mooppan, a former Justice Department official in the Trump administration.

“If the government could have picked a case to be the first post-Bruen case, I think they would have picked this case and this statute,” Mooppan said at a Georgetown Law School preview of the year’s big cases.

But supporters of Rahimi said the appeals court got it right when it looked at American history and found no restriction close enough to justify the gun ban.

They also object to the hearing process under which restraining orders can be issued as insufficiently protective of the rights of people like Rahimi.

“It is sort of a truism that our commitment to due process and the rule of law means very little if we don’t assure that everybody gets due process,” said Clark Neily, a vice president at the libertarian Cato Institute who authored a brief on Rahimi's side.

The Bruen decision has led to upheaval in the legal landscape with rulings striking down more than a dozen laws, said Jacob Charles, a law professor at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California. Those include age restrictions, bans on homemade “ghost guns” and prohibitions on gun ownership for people convicted of nonviolent felonies or using illegal drugs.

The court's decision in the Rahimi case could have widespread ripple effects, including in the high-profile prosecution of Hunter Biden. The president’s son has been charged with buying a firearm while he was addicted to drugs, but his lawyers have indicated they will challenge the indictment as invalid following the Bruen decision.

"It has the potential to be pretty impactful,” Charles said. While it’s possible the high court could hand down a decision on the Rahimi case alone, it seems “the court is realizing that it’s just going to keep having these cases if they decide this narrowly.”

Glenn somehow survived the shooting with no damage to her brain and was released from the hospital after three days. But she and her son lived in fear for several months, before Cedric Glenn took his own life with the same gun.

She wrote in her book, “Everything I Never Dreamed,” that the shooting transformed her life and motivated her to work to prevent other women from suffering similar abuse.

“We're saying that the one thing that can protect them is a protection order that says somebody must have their gun removed,” Glenn said on the sidewalk outside the court. “We’re just increasing the risk to them when we’re not removing the very thing that is threatening to them .”