In “The Road to Rahimi,” her inaugural CAFE Note this week, Rachel Barkow wrote about the Supreme Court’s originalist approach to deciding the constitutionality of gun regulation in recent decades, culminating in the current deliberations in U.S. v. Rahimi, a case that may overturn the federal ban on gun possession for individuals under a domestic violence restraining order. A closer look at the 1990s legislative circumstances that led to the initial gun prohibition for abusers reveals a level of bipartisan support for the ban that is at decided odds with the perspective of today’s conservative Supreme Court – and with the GOP at large.
Last week in the Time Machine, I explored the origins of the assault weapons ban that was embedded in the controversial 1994 Crime Bill. The provision that Rahimi may overturn, 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(8), emerged at the same moment as part of the Crime Bill’s Violence Against Women Act, and as a response to a growing concern by lawmakers about the relationship between firearms and devastating domestic attacks.
Two separate proposals sparked the legislation. First, on October 20th, 1993, Democratic Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone rose in the Senate to introduce the Domestic Violence Firearm Prevention Act, a plan to ban firearm possession for individuals with active restraining orders or domestic violence misdemeanors. The 1968 Gun Control Act – then the main gun safety legislation on the books – was limited to banning possession for those convicted of violent felonies. The felony threshold was seldom reached for even heinous crimes of domestic violence in many states, given the propensity of local and state prosecutors to under-charge the offenses, particularly if the assailant and victim were married.
Wellstone spoke forcefully in favor of the legislation, in a speech available in the Congressional Record (Page 25490). The Senator highlighted the pervasive and continuous news reports of gun killings by romantic partners in his home state:
Just this past weekend in Minnesota, it was reported that a man fatally shot his girlfriend at his apartment after she tried to break up with him. He then shot and killed himself.
And Wellstone offered a call to action:
We must stop the violence—in homes as well as in the streets. This bill takes a strong step toward stopping the crime of domestic violence.
The stand was vintage Wellstone. The populist, who entered the Senate in 1991, had quickly become an icon in Washington for his controversial and lonely opposition to the Gulf War. He became a reliable voice to take on social issues affecting at-risk Americans, often spurred on by his wife and close collaborator, Sheila, a longtime domestic violence awareness activist.
Wellstone highlighted Sheila’s central role in encouraging the legislation, and reminded the Senate that the couple was in the final stages of opening an exhibit called “The Silent Witness” in the nearby Russell Senate Office Building. The traveling show, which originated in Minnesota, was made up of 27 silhouettes – one for each of the Minnesotan women killed in domestic violence attacks during 1990, and an additional silhouette for all those who remained unacknowledged and uncounted.
“Her commitment on this issue has become my commitment,” Wellstone told the Minneapolis Star Tribune of his wife, “not only because I love her, which I do, but because of the way she has brought these issues home.”
Maverick Democrats like Wellstone, however, were not the only Senators staring down the destructive relationship between domestic violence and gun access. A month after Wellstone introduced his bill, Rhode Island Republican Senator John Chafee presented his own version of the ban. Chafee was a patrician and moderate legislator who had been in the Senate since 1976. An environmentalist and a pro-choice Republican, he was increasingly isolated in the rightward-turning GOP.
Chafee’s plan was less sweeping– he aimed to only bar those with active restraining orders against them from getting guns, rather than prohibiting gun access to all those with misdemeanor domestic violence charges. Chafee attached his proposed amendment to the broader crime bill legislation then winding its way through the Senate.
In his introduction of the proposal – also available in the Congressional Record (Page 30578) – Chafee acknowledged three brutal crimes committed by perpetrators with restraining orders out against them.
He first mentioned Kristin Lardner of Boston, whose ex-boyfriend stalked and killed her in May 1992 at age 21. Lardner’s father, Washington Post journalist George Lardner, Jr., subsequently won a Pulitzer Prize for his heartbreaking account of his daughter’s murder.
Chafee also invoked the case of Kimberly Globis, a Waukegan, Illinois woman shot and killed by her ex-boyfriend in front of her seven-year-old daughter. Globis had sought a restraining order against her assailant, who also had an outstanding warrant for criminal trespassing in Globis’s home at the time of her slaying.
And Chafee discussed the recent killing of Marie Willis in his home state of Rhode Island. The 20-year-old Willis was killed by her estranged Navy Airman husband.
The Senator linked the three deaths by the access that each assailant had to a gun despite the restraining orders their victims had secured:
The deaths of these women are tragedies. And it is particularly tragic that in each of these situations, the woman knew that she was in danger of physical attack and had sought legal protection in the form of a restraining order. Yet they remained vulnerable.
…It is that situation—where there is a restraining order in force against someone who poses a clear threat—that my amendment is intended to address. Restraining orders are issued for the express reason that a woman sincerely believes—and a court agrees—that she is in imminent danger of being harmed, attacked or killed.
Chafee spoke in no uncertain terms about his view of federal inaction on the issue:
It is therefore nothing short of insanity for Federal law to allow such dangerous persons to possess a gun. And it has led to the senseless and horrible deaths of many, many young women in this country.
And he excoriated pro-gun legislators who argued that assailants would simply use another weapon:
For those who may argue that a harasser will simply use another weapon, I would say first of all that that is a ludicrous rationale for arguing in favor of allowing the potential attacker to have a gun.
The Senate approved both the Wellstone and Chafee proposals. In the House, however – where gun organizations like the National Rifle Association arguably held more sway – Chafee’s restraining-order-only, more moderate prohibition won out. Even the NRA, however, supported taking away guns from individuals with restraining orders against them.
By June 1994, Chafee’s vision – by this time co-signed by two particularly ardent Second Amendment protectors, fellow Republican Utah Senator Orrin Hatch and Republican Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole – was poised to be included in the massive Crime Bill as part of the larger Violence Against Women Act.
Wellstone was perturbed that domestic violence misdemeanors seemed destined to be left out of the eventual ban. He took the Senate floor on June 23rd, 1994 to make his case one more time. Wellstone argued that the misdemeanor inclusion was so important given the unfortunate state court tendency to prosecute domestic violence committed by spouses as misdemeanors instead of felonies. The remarks are available in full on C-SPAN:
All too often and in all too many States if a man, if that was the situation, was to batter his neighbor’s wife, it would be a felony; but if he battered his own wife, it would be a misdemeanor. We say in our country, if you committed a felony, you should not be able to own a gun, but we do not consider battering to be a felony.
And Wellstone argued that even his most conservative constituents in Minnesota understood and supported the rationale behind taking away guns from abusers and did not view the plan as a threat to their own access to guns for hunting and sport:
I have talked to many people in Minnesota who say, ‘Don’t ever take our sporting rifles away from us.’ I agree. ‘Don’t you go overboard on gun control.’
…Those same people say to me, ‘Yeah, Paul, this is reasonable.’
Wellstone reiterated that the country was waking up to the scourge of domestic abuse:
I think we have reached a conclusion in our country, as a people, that: First, for all too many women and their children, the home is a very dangerous place; second, family violence knows no boundaries; it happens everywhere in all communities; and, third, it is a crime, and people must be held accountable. If it is a crime, then it strikes me this is a very reasonable proposal to take guns and firearms out of the hands of those who have perpetuated this violence.
And Wellstone promised to continue to fight to expand the group of abusers who would be outlawed from having guns:
I hope that in the conference committee we will get a favorable result. But I have a feeling we are going to have to fight very hard for it; maybe I will have to fight on the floor of the Senate to create some of that national pressure.
The Chafee plan was indeed included in the 1994 Crime Bill’s Violence Against Women Act, and the Wellstone fight to secure a broader ban continued on. The quest succeeded in 1996, when New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg – taking up the mantle for Wellstone’s perspective – introduced a successful amendment to include misdemeanors in the prohibition. And Lautenberg fought for two more decades to close the “gun show loophole,” wherein domestic abusers could still procure quasi-legal weapons at gun shows without a check on their criminal records.
Senator Wellstone and Sheila continued to fight to protect victims of domestic violence until they died alongside their daughter and four others in a 2002 plane crash en route to a campaign event.
Now, thirty years after the efforts of these 1990s legislators and the broad-based political coalition they represented, the Supreme Court could roll back not only the Wellstone misdemeanor vision, but the Chafee restraining order successes as well – effectively opening the door to gun access for a broad swath of domestic abusers.
For more on the history of the Wellstone and Chafee plans – and the current judicial peril the domestic abuse gun bans face – check out this amicus brief to U.S. v. Rahimi, which was submitted by Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, Pennsylvania Representative Brian Fitzpatrick, and Michigan Representative Debbie Dingell.
And head to my Twitter account for supplemental archival threads on each Time Machine piece: @DavidKurlander.
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Catch up on some recent Time Machine deep dives into history: