WASHINGTON — Thousands of former gun owners who have a misdemeanor conviction for assaulting or threatening a spouse or girlfriend could have their gun rights restored because of a flaw in the federal law.
That prospect grew more likely Monday after the Supreme Court gave a skeptical hearing to a government lawyer who argued that a crime of domestic violence should result in a loss of gun rights.
Neither families nor police officers should face "the powder keg situation of a domestic offender with a gun," said Nicole Saharsky, a Justice Department lawyer.
But she ran into sharp questioning from justices who said the law was badly written.
Congress sought in 1996 to strengthen the laws against domestic violence. Before, only people convicted of violent felonies in such situations lost their rights to own a gun. Going a step further, lawmakers adopted an amendment to take gun rights from those who had a "misdemeanor crime of domestic violence" on their records.
Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., its sponsor, said he was closing a loophole. In domestic violence cases, local prosecutors often agree to have defendants plead guilty to a misdemeanor assault or battery, which usually calls for less than a year in jail, he said.
"There is no reason for someone who beats their wives or abuses their children to own a gun. When you combine wife-beaters and guns, the end result is more death," Lautenberg said on the Senate floor.
Last year, a U.S. appeals court in Virginia cast doubt on the reach of the law. Its judges decided the federal gun ban did not cover misdemeanor convictions involving assault at home. Instead, it said the federal ban applied to persons who were convicted under a state's domestic violence law.
That would make the federal gun law "a dead letter in two-thirds of the states," the government's lawyer said. She said most states do not have misdemeanor laws on domestic violence.
Justice Antonin Scalia was unswayed by that argument. "People are governed by the law that is passed, not by the law that Congress intended to pass," he said. He and Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said the law as written appeared to apply only to domestic violence measures, not the more common assault-and-battery laws.
The case of U.S. vs. Hayes heard Monday does not turn on the Second Amendment but instead on how the justices read the words of the 1996 law.
"This statute is a mess," Justice Anthony M. Kennedy commented at one point.