Domestic Violence, Gun Possession, and the Importance of Context

Wesley M. Oliver

Federal law prohibits those convicted of committing an act of domestic violence from possessing weapons. Within a few months of the twentieth anniversary of the enactment of the Violence Against Women Act, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that this statute would apply even to those convicted of crimes that did not necessarily involve violent acts. This conclusion strains the ordinary meaning of language, but is quite consistent with a long tradition in criminal cases that favors a pro-government interpretation of a statute when the public welfare is at stake.

Justice Scalia correctly criticized the majority for creating inconsistent definitions of the same language in a single statute, something courts try to avoid. Viewed as a statutory interpretation case, Castleman’s reasoning is a stretch; viewed as an interpretation of a public welfare statute, Castleman is consistent with a long-standing principle of criminal law.

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