Court's decision offers some clarity on gun laws

Nicholas Johnson in Associated Press, July 14, 2010

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By SOPHIA TAREEN
Associated Press Writer

CHICAGO (AP) -- A federal appeals court upheld a ban on gun possession for a domestic violence offender in a ruling that several anti-violence advocates applauded Wednesday for providing some clarity after the U.S. Supreme Court's recent landmark decision on gun restrictions.

The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago ruled 10-1 on Tuesday to reinstate a southern Wisconsin man's conviction for having a gun while on probation for a misdemeanor domestic violence conviction. The decision followed the high court's ruling last month that made Chicago's outright handgun ban unenforceable. The court held that Americans have the right to own a gun for self-defense anywhere they live.

The Wisconsin case was being closely watched by advocates of gun rights and domestic abuse victims, particularly in light of the Supreme Court's ruling. While the court signaled some gun restrictions may survive legal challenges, it offered assurances only on laws that bar felons from having guns.

"Even with the new definition of the Second Amendment, it (Tuesday's ruling) shows that you can still have reasonable gun restrictions," said Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence said of the appellate ruling. "This case really reaffirms that you can have limits."

But Herbert Titus, an attorney for the Virginia-based Gun Owners of America, which filed an amicus brief for the Wisconsin man called the decision outrageous. He said the Supreme Court's ruling put the Second Amendment on par with the First Amendment, which can't be taken from someone.

"No one has said you lose your First Amendment rights if you violate some law," he said. "Why should we assume just because you violated some law, the government can take away your Second Amendment rights?"

The Wisconsin case involved Steven Skoien who was convicted twice of misdemeanor domestic violence involving two different women.

While on probation, the Janesville, Wis., man was arrested in 2007 for gun possession, pleaded guilty the following year and was sentenced to two years in prison.

Late last year, a three-judge panel of the 7th Circuit overturned the conviction, arguing that the government had to better meet its burden before infringing on the constitutional right to keep and bear arms.

Then, in a rare move, the 7th Circuit agreed to rehear the case as a group.

Chief Judge Frank Easterbrook reasoned in Tuesday's 38-page ruling that if nonviolent felons cannot have guns under federal law, neither should a misdemeanor domestic violence convict, especially a repeat offender.

"Skoien is himself a recidivist, having been convicted twice of domestic battery ... Skoien was arrested for possessing multiple guns just one year after the second conviction - while he was still on probation," Easterbrook wrote in the opinion.

Messages left Wednesday for Skoien's attorneys were not immediately returned.

Some experts said Tuesday's ruling at least provided some clarity for what gun restrictions might be acceptable - if only for narrowly defined terms.

"This decision clarifies for the moment that people who are situated in that same situation as the plaintiff don't have an immediate Second Amendment claim," said Nicholas Johnson, professor at Fordham University School of Law in New York.

But the ruling left much in doubt, including whether a person convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence could earn back the right to carry guns.

"There will be time to consider that subject when it arises," Easterbrook wrote in his opinion.

Advocates for domestic violence victims called the ruling heartening.

"The presence of a gun in the home of an abused woman increases her risk of death many times over," said Tony Gibart, a policy coordinator with the Wisconsin Coalition Against Domestic Violence. "It makes sense to restrict people who have domestic violence offenses from having a gun"