Published June 27, 2016
LAME DEER, MONTANA—The U.S. Supreme Court today affirmed that the federal firearm prohibition, 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(9), prohibits an individual convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence from possessing a firearm, regardless of whether the underlying crime of domestic violence was committed with knowing, intentional, or reckless intent. Petitioners Stephen Voisine and William Armstrong asked the Supreme Court to declare that Congress did not intend for § 922(g)(9)’s firearm prohibition to apply to individuals convicted of reckless domestic violence crimes. The Supreme Court declined to carve reckless convictions out of § 922(g)(9)’s reach. Instead, Justice Kagan, writing for the majority, stated that “Congress’s definition of a ‘misdemeanor crime of violence’ contains no exclusion for convictions based on reckless behavior. A person who assaults another recklessly ‘uses’ force, no less than one who carries out that same action knowingly or intentionally.”
“This is a resounding victory for survivors of domestic violence,” said Cherrah Giles, Board President for the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center (“NIWRC”). “In Indian Country, where Native women suffer from domestic violence at rates higher than any other demographic, we are painfully aware of the fact that domestic violence perpetrators escalate their violent acts over time, and what may begin with a reckless act often progresses to violence that results in severe injuries or fatalities at the hands of a domestic abuser.”
“The presence of a gun in the homes where domestic violence occurs drastically increases the likelihood that the lives of our women and children will be taken,” said Lucy Simpson, Executive Director of the NIWRC, a leading advocate in the preservation of tribal sovereignty and ending domestic violence in Indian Country. The NIWRC participated and filed abrief in Voisine as amicus curiae. NIWRC’s amicus brief noted that, like the majority of States, many Tribal Governments define domestic violence as a crime that may be committed with reckless intent. Five Indian Nations joined NIWRC’samicus brief, including the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, the Little Traverse Bay Band of Odawa Indians, the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi, the Seminole Nation, and the Tulalip Tribes. All five amici Indian Nations have invested substantial resources in order to fully exercise their inherent sovereignty and eradicate domestic violence on tribal lands; indeed, all five amici Indian Nations have implemented the special domestic violence criminal jurisdiction restored in § 904 of the 2013 re-authorization of the Violence Against Women Act (“VAWA”), a provision that recognizes and restores the inherent sovereignty of Tribal Nations to prosecute non-Indians who commit crimes of domestic violence against tribal citizens on tribal lands.
“This decision is important for Indian country,” said Woodrow Star, Board of Trustees member and Chair of the CTUIR Law and Order Committee, a signatory of the NIWRC amicus brief. “It better ensures that DV perpetrators in Indian country who have been convicted of tribal crimes are covered by federal firearms restrictions.”
“The Tulalip Tribes stands with Indian Country to celebrate this decision,” said Tulalip Tribes Chairman Mel Sheldon Jr, a signatory to the NIWRC amicus brief. “As one of three initial pilot tribes to implement Special Domestic Violence Jurisdiction (SDVJ), a provision of VAWA 2013, we are well aware of the challenges of holding all who would perpetrate against our population accountable for their crimes. Today’s decision continues the quest for parity and justice for which so many in our communities have been fighting.”
Eighteen tribal coalitions dedicated to supporting survivors and ending domestic violence in tribal communities across the United States also joined the NIWRC amicus brief. Among these coalitions is the the First Nation’s Women’s Alliance, whose Executive Director, Linda Thompson, stated, “The First Nations Women’s Alliance understands the relationship between ending violence against our women and restoring tribal sovereignty. Today’s decision ensures that our Tribal Nations can continue to exercise their inherent sovereignty and protect their women and children from the perpetrators that threaten to abuse, and ultimately, kill them.”
“The Supreme Court’s decision in Voisine ensures that Tribal Nations will not lose the ability to ensure that all individuals convicted of domestic violence crimes are prohibited from owning or possessing a gun.” Mary Kathryn Nagle, partner at Pipestem Law, P.C. and attorney for NIWRC. “Tribal Court domestic violence convictions were added to § 922(g)(9)’s firearm prohibition in the 2005 re-authorization of VAWA. We know that Native women in the United States face the highest rates of domestic violence, assault, and murder in the United States. Thus, for Tribal Nations, and the Native women they seek to protect, today’s decision in Voisine preserves an important protection that Tribal Nations, in partnership with the United States Attorney, use to protect the lives of Native women and children.”
The NIWRC filed this amicus brief as a part of its VAWA Sovereignty Initiative, a project focusing on the defense of the constitutionality and functionality of all VAWA tribal provisions. This Initiative is the NIWRC’s next step forward in defending the 2013 VAWA re-authorization and other important advancements in federal law and policy related to the protection of Native women and children.
The National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center (“NIWRC”) is a nonprofit organization that provides technical assistance, policy development, training, materials, and resource information for Indian and Alaska Native women, Native Hawaiians, and Native non-profit organizations addressing safety for Native women. The NIWRC’s primary mission is to restore safety for Native women through preserving and restoring the inherent jurisdiction of Indian Nations to protect their women and children on tribal lands. For more information, visit www.niwrc.org.