From U.S. v. Skoien, decided today:
A grand jury indicted Steven Skoien for possessing a firearm after having been convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(9)…. Skoien pleaded guilty but reserved his right to appeal [on Second Amendment grounds] the district court’s denial of his motion to dismiss the indictment….
The government has approached this case as though all it had to do to defend the constitutionality of § 922(g)(9) is invoke D.C. v. Heller’s language about certain “presumptively lawful” gun regulations — notably, felon-dispossession laws. Not so. Heller held that the Second Amendment secures an individual natural right to possess firearms for self-defense; the opinion’s reference to exceptions cannot be read to relieve the government of its burden of justifying laws that restrict Second Amendment rights. Although Heller did not settle on a standard of review, it plainly ruled out the deferential rationalbasis test; this leaves either strict scrutiny or some form of “intermediate” review. On the facts of this case, we hold that intermediate scrutiny applies. In its usual formulation, this standard of review requires the government to establish that the challenged statute serves an important governmental interest and the means it employs are substantially related to the achievement of that interest.
Skoien was convicted in state court of misdemeanor domestic battery and was placed on probation. About a year later his probation agent found a hunting shotgun in a truck parked outside his home. Skoien admitted he had gone deer hunting that morning and used the shotgun to kill a deer. He argued below and maintains here that prosecuting him under § 922(g)(9) for possessing the shotgun violates his Second Amendment right to bear arms for hunting. He has not, however, asserted a right to possess the gun for self-defense.
As such, the government’s application of § 922(g)(9) in this case requires less rigorous justification than strict scrutiny because the core right of self-defense identified in Heller is not implicated. Applying intermediate scrutiny, we ask whether the government has established that the statute is substantially related to an important governmental interest. No one questions the importance of the government’s interest in protecting against domestic-violence gun injury and death. The dispute here is about the fit between this important objective and § 922(g)(9)’s blanket ban on firearms possession by persons who have been convicted of a domestic-violence misdemeanor. Under intermediate scrutiny, the government need not establish a close fit between the statute’s means and its end, but it must at least establish a reasonable fit. The government has done almost nothing to discharge this burden. Instead, it has premised its argument almost entirely on Heller’s reference to the presumptive validity of felon-dispossession laws and reasoned by analogy that § 922(g)(9) therefore passes constitutional muster. That’s not enough. Accordingly, we vacate Skoien’s conviction and remand to the district court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.
More thoughts on this, I hope, later today. Thanks to Miguel Larios for the pointer.