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Washington (AFP) – The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments as it struggles to determine whether domestic violence offenders could be barred from possessing a firearm even if they have only committed minor offenses.

The high court’s nine justices took up the case of James Castleman, who argues that his domestic assault conviction in Tennessee for intentionally or knowingly causing “bodily injury” to the mother of his child did not prohibit him under federal law from owning a gun.

Investigators later learned that he was illegally trafficking guns, and Castleman was charged with violating a ban on gun possession for people convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence.

One of the guns Castleman trafficked was found at the scene of a crime in Chicago.

But an appeals court said the federal law only bars people from carrying a gun when they have committed domestic violence using physical force.

So the Supreme Court justices spent most of the hearing trying to define what type of domestic violence could trigger a federal conviction for gun possession, in contrast with actions that only cause injury.

“If I punch somebody in the nose, is that violence?” asked Justice Antonin Scalia.

“Do you have to have a special rule for if I punch my wife in the nose?

“Any physical action that hurts somebody is violence, isn’t it?”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked: “How about pinching or biting, hair pulling, shoving, grabbing, hitting, slapping… Would they in all situations be violence?”

The decision by the highest court in the land, expected in June, could have a major impact, especially if it questions existing federal law, which is stricter than most state gun possession laws.

The federal law “was enacted to protect battered women and children and to close a dangerous loophole… that allowed domestic abusers to possess firearms,” said Melissa Sherry, an assistant to the U.S. solicitor general.

Lawmakers in the U.S. Congress have proposed to boost criminal background checks for gun purchases.

AFP Photo/Mark Wilson

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