Supreme Court Dismisses First Major Gun Case in a Decade

Activists gather outside the Supreme Court before the justices hear arguments in a case brought by gun owners in New York City, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, Dec. 2, 2019.

Activists gather outside the Supreme Court before the justices hear arguments in a case brought by gun owners in New York City, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, Dec. 2, 2019. AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

 

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But at least four conservative justices made clear they would like to see the court take up another gun rights case soon.

In dismissing a dispute over now-repealed New York City handgun restrictions, the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday avoided delving into thorny questions about how lower courts have been deciding whether state and local government firearm regulations are constitutional.

But a dissent by Justice Samuel Alito, which Justices Neil Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas signed onto, and a concurrence from Justice Brett Kavanaugh, indicate that at least four justices may have some level of interest in revisiting the nation’s Second Amendment legal doctrine.

There are a number of firearms-related cases pending before the court that could provide an opportunity for this.

“This is a nothing decision, this is a sidestep,” said Joseph Blocher, a law professor and co-director of the Center for Firearms Law at Duke University. “But it really does make it significant, what’s the next gun case that they take,” he added. “It's definitely not the end of the issue.”

At the center of New York State Rifle and Pistol Association Inc. v. City of New York were regulations the city originally put in place in 2001 that restricted how gun owners that held a specific type of handgun license could travel with their firearms.

With the city’s prior regulations, these “premises” license holders were allowed to have a handgun at their home or business, but were only permitted to transport their weapons to seven gun ranges within the city limits, or in some cases to gun shops.

The court battle over these rules dates back to 2013 when three individual gun owners and the Rifle and Pistol Association filed a lawsuit in federal court arguing that the city’s rules infringed on their Second Amendment Rights and the Constitution’s Commerce Clause.

It was unconstitutional, they argued, that the city’s rules prevented lawful gun owners from traveling with their weapons to second homes or shooting ranges outside the city.

A district court in 2015 and the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2018 sided with New York in the case, allowing the city’s rules to stand. But then last January the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case and, after that, the city changed course. 

Although New York successfully defended its ordinance as a prudent and constitutional safety measure in lower courts, it revised the restrictions last year to permit handgun owners with premises licenses to travel to second homes and gun ranges outside the city.

New York state also passed a law that made the old version of the city’s ordinance illegal.

The city then argued that they’d given the gun owners and the Rifle and Pistol Association what they wanted and that the Supreme Court should declare the dispute it had been considering in the case “moot,” or effectively dead.

This is what the court did on Monday in a two-page unsigned opinion.

New York City Corporation Counsel James Johnson in a statement called the ruling "just right."

"The only claims the petitioners ever brought no longer present a live case, because the challenged City rule no longer exists," he said. "The Court’s resolution was supported by plain common sense, the facts, and the law. We are pleased with the Court’s decision."

The gun owners and the Rifle and Pistol Association had argued to the high court that the reworked rule may still infringe on their rights and that even though they had not made any claim for damages in the case related to the old rule, the door was still open for them to do so.

But the justices in the majority said these issues could be addressed in further proceedings before lower courts.

A lawyer for the gun owners and the Rifle and Pistol Association, and the association itself, did not immediately respond to emailed requests for comment on Monday.

Big questions hung over the case about whether the court might use it to set a tighter framework for how lower courts go about deciding Second Amendment cases, and if that outcome would make it harder for states and localities to adopt certain gun regulations.

It was the first major firearms case to go before the court in about a decade, and since the court issued a pair of landmark Second Amendment rulings in District of Columbia v. Heller in 2008 and McDonald v. City of Chicago in 2010. 

Taken together, those two previous rulings held that individual Americans have a right to keep and bear arms and that this must be respected under state and local laws. But the justices haven't articulated a rigid methodology for reviewing legal challenges under these precedents, essentially leaving that to lower courts.

In his dissenting opinion, Alito raised concerns about how the lower courts went about evaluating the New York restrictions. “Although the courts below claimed to apply heightened scrutiny, there was nothing heightened about what they did,” he wrote.

He said New York’s original ordinance violated the Second Amendment and “burdened the very right recognized in Heller.”

“We are told that the mode of review in this case is representative of the way Heller has been treated in the lower courts. If that is true, there is cause for concern,” Alito wrote.

Alito also outlined why he believed that the court erred in declaring the case moot, and says that when it comes to the limits that the revised city rule leaves in place on how licensees can move about with their weapons, the gun owners and the Rifle and Pistol Association still have claims that warrant consideration.

In his concurring opinion, Kavanaugh said that he shared Alito’s concern that some federal and state courts “may not be properly applying Heller and McDonald.”

“The Court should address that issue soon, perhaps in one of the several Second Amendment cases with petitions for certiorari now pending before the Court,” Kavanaugh added.

Blocher pointed out that those pending cases involve a variety of issues—like "public carry" restrictions and assault weapons bans.

"I think one of those is going to be the vehicle for a real analysis of Second Amendment doctrine going forward," he added.  "The big question is just what kind of case they're going to take."

Bill Lucia is a Senior Reporter for Route Fifty and is based in Olympia, Washington.

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