Domestic violence offenses - even misdemeanors - are considered serious crimes in Arizona, and the state places much emphasis on limiting their occurrence. Even so, it may come as a surprise that those convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors may face a greater penalty than even repeat felony offenders, at least in one regard: They lose their Second Amendment right to bear arms - forever.
Felony Convictions Strip Civil Rights
It has long been true that convicted felons are stripped of certain civil rights. In Arizona, for example, felons lose the right to vote, the right to serve on a jury, the right to run for certain public offices and the their right to own a gun. Similarly, in 1996 the United States Congress passed what is known as the "Lautenberg Amendment," which worked to suspend the right to carry or possess a firearm for anyone convicted of a misdemeanor domestic violence crime. An amendment to the Gun Control Act of 1968, on its face this new law placed domestic violence misdemeanants on equal footing with felons, at least where their Second Amendment rights were concerned.
While the permanent loss of one's Second Amendment rights may not seem like a major imposition to some, the consequences extend farther than merely hunting or self-protection. For instance, without the right to use a firearm, a person previously convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor cannot work as a law enforcement officer, a security guard, or in any other occupation that requires the use of a gun. Moreover, the penalty is retroactive; a police officer who was convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor fifteen or twenty years ago, for example, could lose his or her livelihood.
The Lautenberg Amendment has faced several challenges in federal court. Opponents of the law have argued that the amendment violates the Commerce Clause, the Equal Protection Clause, the Ex Post Facto Clause and the Second and Tenth Amendments. In 1998 a federal court held that it was an Equal Protection violation to treat those convicted of a misdemeanor more harshly than those convicted of a felony. Less than a year later, however, the court reversed itself, finding that Congress was within its power to address a serious social problem. The other constitutional challenges have been similarly unsuccessful.
In 1996, when Congress was considering the Lautenberg Amendment, most states already had laws in place to restore civil rights to convicts who had served their sentences and were deemed ready to reenter society. Rather than supersede these state-specific statutes, Congress instead included a provision in the Lautenberg Amendment relying on each state to set the conditions and procedures through which a person convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor could regain his or her right to own a firearm.
Arizona Offers Rehabilitation of Civil Rights
Many states including Arizona provide a method through which even repeat felony offenders can apply for restoration of their rights after their sentence has been served and their probationary period ended. Two years after a convicted felon has received an absolute discharge from prison - or ten years afterward, in the case of those convicted of certain serious, violent offenses - he or she may be granted the right to once again possess or carry a firearm. One would expect, then, that those convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors would also get a chance to regain their right to own a gun after they have paid their debt to society.
In Arizona, however, people convicted of misdemeanors do not lose any of their civil rights. Thus, the Arizona statute that controls the restoration of rights to felons includes no such provision for misdemeanants - prior to the Lautenberg Amendment, the Arizona legislature simply never perceived a need to include language in the statute covering misdemeanors.
Rehabilitation for Convictions for Misdemeanor Domestic Violence
Unfortunately for those affected, Arizona law originally offered no means to regain Second Amendment rights for those who lose them for a misdemeanor domestic violence conviction. However, the Arizona legislature has since rectified the situation by passing A.R.S. § 13-907, which allows every person convicted of a criminal offense the opportunity to have the conviction set-aside and civil rights restored. Even the right to bear arms that was taken away as a result of the conviction for a misdemeanor domestic violence charge.
This does not mean that the conviction is expunged or sealed. The conviction is still a matter of public record. Arizona, unlike some other states, does not have a mechanism for expungement. Further, whether the court grants the restoration of civil rights is not a guaranteed. An application is made to the court for each offense after successful completion of all court mandated penalties and a waiting period as long as two years.
Also, the provision for restoring civil rights, including the right to bear arms, is not available for a person convicted of a criminal offense as defined in A.R.S. § 13-706. Generally, offenses that would prohibit the restoration of gun possession involve serious bodily injury, use of a deadly weapon, or involving sexual assault. However, there is a catch-all phrase that would allow the court to consider other circumstances that they may deem serious enough to deny gun possession.
It probably does come as a shock to persons who are convicted of a misdemeanor domestic violence offense that they lose their Second Amendment right to bear arms forever. However, states such as, Arizona provide the opportunity to restore those rights by applying to the court, provided that the court believes that offense and circumstances warrant such a restoration of rights.