Update, June 27, 2016: The Supreme Court upheld the federal law that bars convicted domestic abusers from owning guns, ruling against Voisine and Armstrong. It's a huge win for victims of intimate partner violence in the U.S.
On November 23, 2009, state officials in Maine received an unusual tip from an anonymous caller: a bald eagle might have been shot near the timber-country outpost of Kingman. Arriving at the scene, game wardens found the lifeless bird tangled in a barren tree. It had been hanging there for over a month.
Killing an endangered species that is also America's national symbol can be a felony punishable by fines of up to $250,000. As the tipster had suspected, the eagle found near Kingman had died of bullet wounds. The investigation narrowed around a central suspect: Stephen L. Voisine, then 48, a logger and a father of six living in the hardscrabble village of Wytopitlock, roughly half an hour from where the dead bird was found.
The officers who arrived at Voisine's home asked a question that comes up in any potential crime involving a gun: whether he was legally allowed to have the firearm allegedly used to commit the offense. A set of federal laws makes it illegal for certain people — primarily, convicted felons and convicted domestic abusers — to possess guns. If it's illegal to shoot a protected bird of prey, it's doubly illegal to do that with a gun you're not even supposed to own.
Voisine shouldn't have had guns. His criminal record included 14 convictions for assault and domestic violence spanning 28 years. When Voisine admitted that he shot the bald eagle with a rifle, he unwittingly confessed to owning a gun as a domestic abuser.
The primary statute prohibiting domestic abusers from owning guns is the Lautenberg Amendment, enacted by Congress in 1996. It's not a perfect seal against wrongdoing. Air gets through; criminals get guns. When a domestic abuser walks into a federally licensed dealer to buy a new weapon, he or she will be asked to go through a background check, and that background check is supposed to raise a red flag blocking the sale. But whether that actually happens depends on the right records getting submitted to government databases. (Most states rely on the FBI to run their checks, but some do them on their own.) Despite improvements in recent years, millions of those files never make it into the system. As of 2013, Voisine's home state of Maine had not submitted a single domestic-violence record to the federal gun-background-check system. Neither had 12 other states.
There are two responses to hearing that a man like Voisine got his hands on a gun. One would be to ask: what would it take to strengthen the background-check system so that this never happens again? But a gun-rights advocate might pose a different question: should he have been barred from owning a gun in the first place? That's the question Voisine has been raising. He lost an appeal in the First Circuit Court in 2015, and now his legal fight has reached the Supreme Court. Voisine and another Maine man with a history of domestic abuse, William E. Armstrong III, have joined to challenge the gun-possession charges brought against them. The justices will hear the case on February 29. (This date was set before the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, which may alter the timing, and the ultimate decision).
Through their attorney, a federal public defender named Virginia Villa, Voisine and Armstrong are arguing that there's a hierarchy of abusive behavior, in which some actions ought to count as "domestic violence" while others should be seen as lesser crimes that don't earn that title — and therefore shouldn't trigger a gun ban. And it's that idea that makes this case about more than a dead bird.