The case, Voisine v. United States, involved two men from Maine who had both pleaded guilty to misdemeanor domestic assault. A few years after Stephen Voisine entered his guilty plea in 2004, he got in trouble again, this time for killing a bald eagle. While investigating that crime, law enforcement officers determined that Voisine illegally owned a gun.
Citing decades-old common law, Voisine and the other petitioner argued that because their assault conduct had been “reckless,” rather than “knowing or intentional,” it should not qualify as misdemeanor domestic violence—the kind of crime that would disqualify them from owning guns. The court rejected this argument.
“The common law traditionally used a variety of overlapping and, frankly, confusing phrases to describe culpable mental states—among them, specific intent, general intent, presumed intent, willfulness, and malice,” Justice Elana Kagan wrote in the majority opinion. “Whether and where conduct that we would today describe as reckless fits into that obscure scheme is anyone’s guess.”
What is more, Kagan argues, by the time Congress passed this law “to take guns out of the hands of abusers convicted under the misdemeanor assault laws then in general use in the States,” it had abandoned the common law approach.
“Nothing suggests that, in enacting §922(g)(9), Congress wished to look beyond that real world to a common-law precursor that had largely expired. To the contrary, such an approach would have undermined Congress’s aim by tying the ban on firearms possession not to the laws under which abusers are prosecuted but instead to a legal anachronism.”
The Supreme Court ruled against the Maine men 6-2.