Legal Analysis: Firearms and Protection Orders in US v Rahimi

On February 2, 2023, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a decision causing alarm nationwide among advocates for survivors of domestic violence. U.S. v. Rahimi, No. 21-11001 (5th Cir. 2023). To be clear, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals does not set precedent applicable to interpreting federal law outside its own jurisdiction covering Texas, Mississippi, and Louisiana. In other words, the decision does not govern how Minnesota applies law. However, the decision represents how one federal judicial circuit withdrew its own prior analysis of relevant law after a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision. N.Y. State Rifle & Pistol Ass’n, Inc. v. Bruen, 142 S. Ct. 2111 (2022); see also Rahimi at 2. The decision reinforces the Minnesota Elder Justice Center’s mission to mobilize communities to prevent and alleviate abuse, as well as its value of openhearted collaboration.

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals decision finds unconstitutional a federal law prohibiting individuals subject to restraining order from possession firearms. Rahimi at 2. The decision’s reasoning emphasizes the need for collaboration and engagement from both the criminal justice system and community-based organizations in addressing the needs of individuals experiencing domestic violence at any age. See Rahimi at 21. The court correctly identifies the court proceedings for restraining orders as civil. A civil proceeding is one initiated by individuals or non-governmental entities. A civil proceeding contrasts with a criminal proceeding, which is initiated by a governmental entity on behalf of the public it serves. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals considered a law prohibiting firearm possession by individuals subject to restraining orders as unconstitutional because, without the procedural rights accorded in criminal law, the law is an “outlier that our ancestors would have never accepted.” Id. at 22, quoting Bruen at 21. A concurring opinion reminds readers that criminal law allows for “the incarceration of those who criminally threaten, but have not (yet) committed, violence.” Rahimi at 24. For example, law enforcement and prosecutors’ offices may engage in violence prevention on charges of terroristic threats. In closing its decision, the panel of judges prioritized a token of praise for the federal law deemed unconstitutional, identifying that it “embodies salutary policy goals to protect vulnerable people in our society.” Rahimi at 22. Nonetheless, the decision is a source of pain, anger, and uncertainty among those leaning on civil remedies for protecting individuals for whom criminal remedies have not seemed sufficiently expedient or effective.

The Minnesota Elder Justice Center will continue to include harassment restraining orders and order for protection among the remedies suggested and offered to individuals who contact us for help alleviating abuse. Meanwhile, we take seriously the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal interpretation that makes collaboration with our partners in law enforcement and prosecutors’ offices indispensable in restricting firearm access from individuals presenting provable threat to the safety and security of vulnerable and older adults.

By Laura Orr, Staff Attorney

Minnesota Elder Justice Center