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The U.S. Supreme Court is at the center of two cases that could give more power to domestic abusers going forward. This puts survivors across the U.S. at increased risk for violence, including homicide
Abusers May Have Unrestrained Access to Guns
The first case, Rahimi v. U.S., challenges how the Supreme Court will define Second Amendment rights. In 2019, Texas resident Zackey Rahimi was seen abusing his girlfriend. He dragged her through a parking lot before pulling a gun and firing at witnesses. Afterward, his girlfriend obtained an order of protection that prohibited Rahimi from possessing firearms. Yet Rahimi was later involved in multiple firearm assaults in the months following. This included a road rage incident where he fired his gun at another driver. He was also involved in a restaurant dispute where he shot his gun into the air and found himself back in court.
In March, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that prohibiting Rahimi from owning guns was unconstitutional under the Second Amendment. Protections for domestic violence survivors have law for decades but often fall short. In 1996, The Lautenberg Amendment was added to the Federal Gun Act of 1968. Lautenberg bans anyone convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor from possessing a firearm. But the amendment only covered current or former spouses, parents, or guardians, not dating partners, who make up a significant portion of homicide perpetrators.
Rahimi was later sentenced to six years in prison for firing an AR-15 into the home of a person to whom he was selling drugs. However, his illegal gun possession conviction was overturned by the 5th Circuit. The panel determined that banning abusers from owning guns was "an outlier that our ancestors would never have accepted."
The Biden administration immediately appealed the decision. U.S. Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar told the Supreme Court that the 5th Circuit's ruling was "profoundly mistaken." Prelogar wrote that "governments have long disarmed individuals who pose a threat to the safety of others." She added that the 1994 law "falls comfortably within that tradition."
The Supreme Court will hear the appeal during its next term in October. However, the justices made their stance on gun control clear in June 2022. During that ruling, in a case called New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen, a New York law that prohibited concealed handguns outside the home was struck down. The ruling declared that firearm restrictions must be "consistent with this nation's historical tradition of firearm regulation."
Historians point out that the context of the Second Amendment originally applied to a “well-regulated militia.” Much more recently, the Supreme Court legislated to ignore this original language in order to invent a "right" that, in a short time, has become sacred to gun owners. When the Supreme Court invented this right, they specifically said that it was subject to reasonable regulation, which remains to be seen.
Advocates warn that if the Supreme Court affirms the Rahimi ruling, they will place victims of domestic violence at exponentially higher levels of danger. Statistics show that abusers who have access to handguns are 500 percent more likely to kill their partners than abusers without guns.
Jeana Lungwitz is the Clinical Professor in the Domestic Violence Clinic at the University of Texas School of Law. She says the Rahimi decision will jeopardize the safety of communities as well as individual survivors.
“Something that’s shocking to me is how many of the mass shootings we see are related to domestic violence. So this isn’t just a family issue. It really impacts and has ripple effects across our communities. If we want to have safe communities then we need to regulate violent people with guns. It doesn’t seem that hard to me.”
It’s estimated that at least 60 percent of all mass shootings have roots in domestic violence. In many mass shootings, it’s a loved one or partner who is often shot first.
The mass shooting connection to domestic violence may even be higher. Some experts say it's clear when you look at the history of violence against women in the perpetrator’s life. Casey Gwin is the co-founder and president of Alliance for HOPE International. He estimates it may be closer to 70 percent of all mass shooters who have strangled a woman before they commit a mass shooting.
“Stranglers are the most dangerous men on the planet. We know men who strangle women are more likely to later kill them. They kill police officers and commit mass shootings. When they kill, they use a gun most of the time. But the real ‘last warning shot’ is their violence against an intimate partner,” says Gwinn.
Research supports that mass shooters often perceive a wrong against them, and many then place that blame on a partner who has left them. Advocates warn that leaving can be the most dangerous time for a survivor. Gwinn says nearly 75 percent of women killed annually in the U.S. by an intimate partner are murdered at the time of separation or after separation.
“When a victim tries to get away from her abuser, she challenges his power and control. That puts her in the greatest danger she has ever experienced,” he says.
Abusers Will Be Able to Harass and Stalk Victims Online Without Consequence
Advocates are rightfully concerned about the potential Rahimi decision because the Supreme Court has already moved down the road of minimizing high-risk situations where obsessed, rage-filled abusers are not held accountable. On June 27, in a 7-2 ruling, the Supreme Court reversed the conviction of a man who sent stalking messages to a country music star. They cited violations of the stalker's First Amendment rights.
The decision stated that truly threatening messages were not protected. However, states must discern the difference between threats and delusion. They said the perpetrator had clearly “disregarded a substantial risk that his communications would be viewed as threatening violence.”
The case at hand concerned Billy Raymond Counterman stalking singer-songwriter Coles Whalen. Whalen first began receiving disturbing messages from Counterman via Facebook in 2010. She never responded, but for years, the messages kept coming.
Counterman had served prison time in the past for a separate stalking case. He was eventually arrested after Whalen reported the relentless messages. According to The Washington Post, these messages included such statements as:
“I’m currently unsupervised. I know, it freaks me out too, but the possibilities are endless.”
“F--- off permanently.”
“You’re not being good for human relations. Die. Don’t need you.”
At one point, he made it clear he was also stalking her in real life:
“Knock, knock, five years on FB. I miss you, only a couple physical sightings. You’ve been a picker upper for me more times than I can count.”
One detective estimated Counterman sent thousands of messages—even close to a million—to the singer.
It took years for Counterman to be convicted and sentenced to four and a half years behind bars. Whalen says during that time she lived in constant fear. She moved out of her home state of Colorado. She took a concealed-carry class and purchased a firearm on the suggestion of police. She began having panic attacks on stage when she performed in dark spaces and couldn’t see the audience. Eventually, she changed careers. Whalen was forced to put singing on the backburner and taking a marketing job instead.
“I thought that life would be mine again and sadly it wasn’t,” she told Colorado Public Radio in April. “We got this conviction but I still lost my dream. It was my dream and it wasn’t his right to take that from me.”
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The high court’s ruling has affected survivors across the country. Survivors know exactly how this will empower abusers and stalkers to skirt that fine line between lawful and not. Shannon Thomas is a licensed clinical therapist and author of Healing from Hidden Abuse. She has seen this play out for many survivors she’s treated. She, herself, was stalked for years by a complete stranger who found her online. The stalker claimed Thomas was responsible for her sister’s death. Thomas never met the woman or the woman’s sister, though they lived in the same town.
“What I’ve gone through has been horrendous. She’s turned my life upside down. She didn’t just send me messages online. She found my husband’s family and called them, left messages, asked them where I was.”
Thomas says the woman doxed her—releasing Shannon’s home address on social media. The stalker said she hoped someone would go and kill Thomas. Thomas called the police numerous times to report the woman.
“The [police] department treated me like I was overreacting. They said, unless she actually does something, they can’t do anything. They were telling me to calm down and not give it attention.”
Eventually Thomas says the woman was arrested for unlawful possession of a firearm and Thomas was able to secure a 10-year protective order. Hearing of the Supreme Court’s decision to make online stalking allowable under free speech protections was unsettling, to say the least.
“It’s going to put a lot of lives at risk. It may not be a direct threat to ask where someone is, but it can be threatening. A ‘true threat’ is subjective.”
Stalking is very often a component of domestic violence. It often follows a survivor’s separation from an abuser. While stalking is illegal in all 50 states, the nuances of these laws vary. And now, they may now become more lax thanks to the Supreme Court’s decision. It’s estimated 7.5 million individuals are victims of stalking every year in the U.S., the majority of whom are women. Of those, half were under the age of 25 when the stalking began.
Gwinn says stranglers in intimate relationships often become stalkers after their victim tries to get away from him.
“An abuser has what we call a ‘loaded God complex.' When he strangles her, he is telling her he has ultimate control over her entire life. When she leaves, his behavior shifts to stalking. This is another form of coercive control,” says Gwinn.
In a survey on DomesticShelters.org, nearly half of the 356 online stalking victim respondents reported that their stalkers used multiple methods. This included:
- Monitoring their social media presence
- Using an app to read their private emails and texts
- Using GPS to track their location
- Threatening to share private or intimate photos online.
Stalking often escalates to in-person harassment and violence. Like Whalen, Thomas says she, too, began to carry a firearm with her, something she’d never done before.
“My stalker had a gun, and I know people who’ve died by gun violence. We should have a right to set a boundary. We should have a right to say to people, ‘leave me alone.’”
Thomas says her stalker has since been released from a mental health program. She continues to post online about Thomas, though she uses a nickname for Thomas. Police say there’s nothing they can do.
“Law enforcement has told me, ‘It’s not illegal to be crazy.’”
Justice Amy Coney Barrett was one of the dissenters of the June Supreme Court decision. Barrett said, in part, “A delusional speaker may lack awareness of the threatening nature of her speech; a devious speaker may strategically disclaim such awareness; and a lucky speaker may leave behind no evidence of mental state for the government to use against her. The Court’s decision thus sweeps much further than it lets on.”
To learn more about the frightening tactics stalkers use, read “High-Tech Stalking Tactics.”
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