Supreme Court Rewrites Lautenburg Amendment



February 24, 2009

Springfield, Virginia.  On February 24, 2009, by a vote of 7 to 2, the United States Supreme Court handed the notorious anti-gun New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenburg (D-NJ) a  victory in his war against gun owners, in the case of United States v. Randy Edward Hayes.

Larry Pratt, Executive Vice President of Gun Owners Foundation, commented:  “Here we had a case of pure statutory construction.  Sadly, Justice Ginsburg creatively reshuffled the words of the statute to interpret it in th way Senator Lautenberg wanted it to be read.  The Second Amendment was not an issue in this case, as it was not a constitutional challenge under Heller.  Nevertheless, we are disappointed in the majority’s ruling.” 

In agreement with an amicus curiae brief filed on behalf of Gun Owners Foundation (GOF), and in dissent from this ruling, Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Scalia accused the majority of having written an opinion “restructuring the statute and adding words” to the law that prohibits any person convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence from owning or otherwise possessing a firearm.

According to the Court majority’s revised version of the statute, a person loses his right to have a firearm if he is convicted of a simple assault or battery if there is information in a police report (or some other nonjudicial record) indicating that the victim was in some way “domestically” related to the convicted person.  In other words, a person could lose his firearm rights solely on the basis of the unsubstantiated accusation of the victim or even a neighbor.

As Chief Justice Roberts observed, “the majority’s approach will entail significant problems in application”:  “it will often be necessary to go beyond the fact of conviction and ‘engage in an elaborate factfinding process regarding the defendant’s prior offens[e]….’”

The GOF amicus brief spelled out in some detail those practical problems, including the unreasonable risk that a prospective gun buyer may be accused of filing a false statement on the ATF 4473 Form in which he must swear that he has not been convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence and the inherent unreliability of information contained in police reports of emotionally-charged incidents that lead to assault accusations.

But these warnings fell on a deaf-eared majority.  Instead of holding the government to a strict interpretation of the statutory language, the majority preferred to rely upon the single voice of Senator Lautenburg who, as sponsor of the new law, delivered a self-serving speech on the Senate floor about statutory language inserted in the “last-minute” by Senate and House  conferees behind closed doors that even the majority found to be “awkward.”

Even more significant, the majority justified its strained construction of the statute in order to meet the gun-control policy goals of Senator Lautenburg.  Thus, it ruled that it would be worth it to increase the risk that an innocent person would be denied the right to purchase a firearm, in order to decrease the risk that a “guilty” person might escape undetected by the instant criminal background check.

Gun Owners Foundation is the litigating sister-organization of Gun Owners of America, Inc.