Laura Morris has a very personal reason to be disturbed about a case being heard by the Supreme Court on Tuesday concerning a domestic abusers’ ability to own a gun: a hole in her shoulder
That bullet wound is from where her husband shot her three decades ago, when the federal law that prevents abusers from possessing firearms didn’t exist. Now, Ms Morris is fighting to protect other domestic violence victims from suffering her fate — or worse.
The case, United States v Rahimi, hinges on a man named Zackey Rahimi and the constitutionality of a federal law that prohibits a person who is subject to a domestic-violence restraining order from possessing a firearm.
Rahimi was forced to relinquish his firearm in 2019 after his then-girlfriend obtained a two-year restraining order against him. The court found that Rahimi had “committed family violence” against his girlfriend and that such violence was “likely to occur again in the future.”
The court’s finding was prophetic. Even after being banned from possessing a gun, Rahimi was involved in five shootings from December 2020 to January 2021. None of them involved his former girlfriend. Authorities indicted him in April 2021 under the federal restraining order gun law, meaning he had to forfeit any firearms and he’s been fighting it ever since, arguing that it violates his Second Amendment rights.
Now SCOTUS will hear the case, which by its nature will determine how valuable restraining orders are in protecting people if the firearm relinquishment requirement no longer exists.
‘I actually thought that I was dead’
Laura Morris wonders how a protective order would’ve changed her life.
Ms Morris and her husband were just starting to raise their young son in an Illinois town in 1981 when their community was turned upside down: two of her female neighbours were shot and killed by their respective husbands.
One of the women had even obtained a restraining order against her husband. After calling the police on her husband, he shot her in the back as she tried to run across their front yard to the responding police cars. The shot killed her.
Given those shootings, then-24-year-old Ms Morris certainly wasn’t thrilled when her own husband bought a gun for $25 at a bar. At that time, he was already “a little rough” and would yell when he drank too much, she recalled. Shortly after the gun purchase, however, things escalated quickly.
Ms Morris’ husband began punching her, slapping her, choking her, and shoving her to the ground, she said. Afraid she would leave him, he insisted that she only spend her time with him, which she described as a way for him to wield “power” over her.
Eventually, things got so bad that even when Ms Morris attempted to leave her home for daily activities — whether to go to the store, to work or to visit a friend — he threatened to shoot her. He would grab his gun, aim it at her and then say he would shoot her in the back of the head if she went anywhere. “So I didn’t want to leave him,” she said.
Despite the constant threats, Ms Morris didn’t obtain a restraining order against her husband. She feared that pressing charges against him or any formal proceedings would only make him more angry. Besides, she had seen first hand in the case of her neighbour that a restraining order did not save her from her tragic fate. “There’s nothing that can protect me,” she reasoned with herself.
She also clung to the hope that, unlike her neighbours’ husbands, her husband wouldn’t actually shoot her. But then he did. One night, he pulled out his .22 handgun, pushed her onto the couch and aimed the firearm at her stomach.
“Gut wounds hurt the worst,” Ms Morris remembered her husband saying. “So he wanted to not only kill me, but he wanted to make sure that I suffered,” she said.
Although the moment she was shot remains blurry, Ms Morris recalls that she didn’t feel any pain, “so I actually thought that I was dead.”
She remembered sitting on the sofa, injured, her mind racing. “Who’s gonna raise my son?” she thought. “Please don’t let my grandparents find my body.”
Ms Morris suddenly became more alert — awakened by the smell of gunpowder and the smoke emanating from the new hole in her shoulder.
He put the barrel in my mouth, he aimed it over my heart, he ended at the back of my head and right up against me and said, ‘I can’t miss this time’
Surprisingly she said the injury itself didn’t hurt; her husband had shot her at such close range the hot bullet cauterised the wound.
“In fact, I still don’t have much feeling where the wound is,” she said. “I was so glad that it was something low caliber.”
In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, Ms Morris made a deal with her husband: she wouldn’t go to the police or to the hospital in exchange for his gun. He agreed to it. She took the weapon that had injured her out in the woods behind her house, dug a hole, and buried it. This was not the end of her nightmare though.
Not long after, her husband brought out a shotgun previously given to him by his parents.
He then started terrorising Ms Morris with that weapon instead. “He put the barrel in my mouth, he aimed it over my heart, he ended at the back of my head and right up against me and said, ‘I can’t miss this time,’” Ms Morris recalled.
She lived in overwhelming daily fear. “Every day it was like, Is this going to be it? Is this going to be the day he finally does it?’” she wondered. At some point, mostly worried about how this dynamic was affecting her son, she decided to leave her husband.
“I would rather be dead than live like this every single day,” she figured.
Six months after her husband shot her, Ms Morris filed for divorce. As part of the divorce arrangement, her husband agreed that he would return his shotgun to his parents. The federal law that’s now being debated before SCOTUS wouldn’t be passed for another 13 years.
The impact on protective orders
It’s important to note just how many protective orders exist. In the state of New York alone, 335,000 orders of protection were filed in 2019 — the year that Rahimi was issued his in Texas. If the law is struck down, the number of domestic violence survivors potentially affected all across the country will be hundreds of thousands, if not millions.
On top of this, the current law arguably bolsters protective orders. Ms Morris, now a senior fellow at Everytown Survivor Network, argued that fewer people will be as inclined to seek a protective order if the Supreme Court rules that the federal law violates the Second Amendment.
If there had been some kind of law at that point, she’d be alive now
“You’re arming people that have protective orders against them,” Ms Morris said. “So a court or judge has already determined they’re dangerous. And the only thing that’s keeping the women safe is to take the guns away from them [abusers].”
Micaela Deming, policy director for the DC Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said not to give up on protective orders, calling them a “critical tool.”
However, she conceded that if SCOTUS rules the law unconstitutional, it would mean more guns in the hands of people “where a judge has said: ‘I am finding you a specific danger to this other human being, and maybe multiple other human beings.’”
Referring to the somewhat flimsy aspect of a protective order without the current statute bolstering it, Ms Morris added: “When has a piece of paper ever stopped a bullet?”
She thought back to her former neighbour, and wondered what difference the federal law would have made to her. “If there had been some kind of law at that point, she’d be alive now,” Ms Morris said. “She’d be close to my age. She’d have watched her children grow. She would have had a good life. But she died in her front yard in terror.”
‘A matter of life and death’
The law before the Supreme Court is federal, but legal experts argue that an unconstitutional ruling could result in challenges to state laws.
Janet Carter, the senior director of issues and appeals at Everytown Law, said that the nationwide effects of the case will only be known if the Court strikes down the federal law. However, she predicted gun lobby challenges to similar state laws.
According to Everytown research, 32 states have barred those subject to domestic-violence restraining orders from being able to possess firearms. According to a 2018 study, state laws that require firearms to be relinquished by perpetrators of domestic violence against whom restraining orders are entered are associated with a 12 per cent drop in intimate partner homicide.
Legal experts told The Independent that if fewer barriers are put in place between domestic abusers and guns, it could become more difficult for survivors to leave. “This is really a matter of life and death,” Ms Carter said, saying the law is “essential for public safety.”
Ms Deming from the DC Coalition Against Domestic Violence agreed. “These are very real, horrifying situations that people are living through trying to survive, and also losing their lives to and disrupting generations,” Ms Deming said.
If the Supreme Court rules that removing guns from those with protective orders against them is unconstitutional, then allowing abusers to have guns will likely only perpetuate the abuse.
At the very least, it won’t make the situation easier for those who have been abused to leave.
Ms Morris says she hates being asked why she didn’t leave sooner, since every person has “a zillion reasons” why they didn’t — or couldn’t — leave. For some, it’s lack of resources, for others, a child is involved, and for others still, it’s fear. That fear is only exacerbated by the presence of a gun, she argued.
Whether Rahimi, the man at the centre of the case before SCOTUS, is allowed his guns is no longer really an issue. He wrote a handwritten note in July vowing “to stay away from all firearms and weapons, and to never be away from my family again.”
But if the court sides with Rahimi, “it’s open season on women at that point,” Ms Morris said.
“You’re going to take the guns away from them when you arrest them for murder,” she said. “Why don’t you take them away from them before they do that and save a life?”