People convicted of misdemeanor crimes involving use of physical force against a domestic relation cannot possess firearms or ammunition, even when the offense they were convicted of involves only reckless conduct, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled June 27.

The case is Voisine v. United States.


Stephen Voisine pleaded guilty to assaulting his girlfriend in violation of a Maine law which made it a misdemeanor to “intentionally, knowingly or recklessly” cause bodily injury to another person. 

Several years later, Voisine was convicted under 18 U.S.C. Sec. 922 for owning a rifle, which he had used for hunting.

18 U.S.C. Sec. 922(g)(9) prohibits persons convicted of a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” from possessing a firearm or ammunition.  18 U.S.C. Sec. 921(a)(33)(A) defines the phrase to include a misdemeanor, under federal, state or tribal law, committed by a person with a specified domestic relationship with the victim, that “has, as an element, the use or attempted use of physical force.”

The Court had previously held, in United States v. Hayes (2009), that a conviction under a general assault statute, such as Maine’s, can serve as a predicate offense for a Sec. 922(g)(9) prosecution, where the Government proves that the defendant and the victim of the prior assault had one of the specified domestic relationships set out in Sec. 921(a)(33)(A).

Voisine contended that he was not subject to the firearms prohibition because his conviction could have been based on reckless, rather than knowing or intentional, conduct.
The Supreme Court granted cert. on the issue to resolve a circuit split.


The Court, in a 6-2 opinion, ruled that the Sec. 922(g)(9) includes reckless conduct.

“Statutory text and background alike lead us to conclude that a reckless domestic assault qualifies as a ‘misdemeanor crime of domestic violence,’” the Court said.
“Nothing in the word ‘use’ [of physical force] … indicates that Sec. 922(g)(9) applies exclusively to knowing or intentional domestic assaults,” the Court said. 

“[T]he word ‘use’ does not demand that the person applying force have the purpose or practical certainty that it will cause harm, as compared with the understanding that it is substantially likely to do so,” the Court said.  Reckless conduct means a conscious disregard of a substantial risk that conduct will cause harm to another, the Court noted. 
The Court added that the statute requires “volitional” conduct, and does not include “merely accidental conduct.” 

Congress enacted the statute “in order to prohibit domestic abusers convicted under run-of-the-mill assault and battery laws from possessing guns,” the Court said.  “Because fully two-thirds of such state laws extend to recklessness, construing Sec. 922(g)(9) to exclude crimes committed with that state of mind would substantially undermine the provision’s design.”

Dissenting opinion

In an unusual pairing, Justice Thomas, joined in part by Justice Sotomayor, dissented.

They said that “using force” against another is generally understood to mean “intentional acts – punching, kicking, shoving, or using a weapon.”
They said that including recklessness is overbroad, and may have unintended results.

 “By criminalizing all reckless conduct, the Maine statute captures conduct such as recklessly injuring a passenger by texting while driving resulting in a crash,” they said. 
A parent could be convicted of injuring their child in a car accident as a result of texting while driving, and thus, be prohibited from possessing a firearm.  But “one would not naturally call a car accident a ‘use of force,’ even if people were injured by the force of the accident,” they said. 

They said that the majority’s limitation on its interpretation of use of force to require volitional conduct and to exclude accidental conduct “will cause confusion” and not limit the overbreadth of the ruling.

Writing only for himself, Justice Thomas said that the opinion violates the Second Amendment by prohibiting people convicted of a single minor crime – including car accidents, “a single minor reckless injury or offensive touching” — from ever possessing a firearm.  “We treat no other constitutional right so cavalierly,” he said.