Under federal law, it’s a crime for someone convicted of a felony or a misdemeanor domestic violence offense to possess a firearm or ammunition. (States have their own laws that may also prevent one from having a gun.) A misdemeanor in the federal firearm context generally qualifies as domestic violence if, first, it involves:
- physical force
- an attempt to use physical force, or
- a threat to use a deadly weapon.
Second, to be a domestic violence crime, the defendant must generally:
- be the victim’s current or former spouse, parent, or guardian
- share a child with the victim
- live with or have lived with the victim as a spouse, parent, or guardian, or
- be similar to a spouse, parent, or guardian of the victim.
(18 U.S.C. § 921(a)(33)(A). For more on this federal law, including its relation to state law and information on regaining gun-possession rights, see Can someone possess a gun after a criminal conviction? Also see Domestic Violence & Abuse.)
In March of 2014, the Supreme Court cleared up the meaning of “domestic violence” in the context of the federal firearm-possession law. The Court determined that the term “force” doesn’t mean violent force. Instead, “force” applies to both violent acts and offensive touching. (United States v. Castleman, 12-1371 (2014).) In that way, domestic violence, like the traditional crime of battery, doesn’t necessarily involve violence.
The Court noted that most assaults committed between people in intimate relationships are relatively minor—for instance, pushing, grabbing, and slapping. Under the court’s decision, these kinds of acts—even if they don’t cause any injury and are merely offensive rather than violent—constitute domestic violence. In fact, even an unsuccessful attempt to touch a victim offensively can now constitute a domestic violence offense that bars the defendant from later possessing a gun.