The Supreme Court sidestepped its first significant Second Amendment case in a decade, dismissing on technical grounds a challenge to New York City’s now-defunct ban on residents transporting their licensed guns outside the city.
New York City abandoned its contested restrictions, which made it unlawful to transport a gun even to a second home or shooting range outside the city, after the Supreme Court took up the case in January 2019. The decision said New York's decision to abandon the regulation gave the plaintiffs everything they were seeking in court, leaving nothing for the justices to resolve.
The ruling is a disappointment for legal conservatives, who saw the case as a promising vehicle for expanding Second Amendment rights. But their dismay may prove short-lived. In a brief concurring opinion, Justice Brett Kavanaugh noted that there are several cases now pending before the Court involving so-called assault weapons bans and rights to carry firearms outside the home, among other gun-rights issues. As such, the Court could take up a significant gun-rights dispute in the coming months.
The Court's two-page decision was unsigned. Justice Samuel Alito dissented, joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch.
New York's regulations were some of the most restrictive in the nation. A city ordinance authorized gun owners to carry their firearms to one of seven small-arms ranges within the city. Gun owners needed the written permission of city officials to transport their weapons to locations other than an approved range and were forbidden from carrying their firearms beyond city limits.
Members of the New York State Rifle and Pistol Association (NYSRPA), a state affiliate of the NRA, challenged the rules in federal court. The plaintiffs wanted to carry weapons to vacation homes and shooting competitions outside the five boroughs.
The city successfully defended its restrictions before a trial judge and the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. After the justices took up Monday's case, New York relaxed its rules and allowed gun owners to transport firearms to second homes and shooting clubs outside the city. Simultaneously, with gun-control groups quietly lobbying for the change out of fear over how the Court might rule, the New York state legislature passed a law forbidding regulations of the sort once in force in New York City.
The Court, satisfied that those changes gave the plaintiffs everything they asked for, tossed the case. The justices also lifted lower court rulings upholding the old rules and said the plaintiffs could seek monetary damages.
Gun-rights activists said they were dismayed by the ruling but are ready to try again at the High Court. Alan Gottlieb of the Second Amendment Foundation told the Washington Free Beacon that he was undeterred by Monday's decision, saying the conservative justices are clearly interested in expanding Second Amendment rights. He said Justice Kavanaugh's concurrence suggested that lower courts have unduly restricted the Second Amendment in recent years.
"The Second Amendment Foundation currently has four cases pending before the Supreme Court," Gottlieb said. "We hope that one or all of these cases get heard and give notice to lower courts that they can no longer thumb their noses at the prior rulings that protect Second Amendment rights."
For their part, gun-control advocates applauded the decision.
"The issue at the heart of this case was already resolved and the plaintiffs had already received everything they had demanded and more. Recognizing this, the court's decision that there is no case here is common-sense," Kris Brown, president of Brady United, said in a statement. "This case was moot in December. That the court recognizes this too merely underscores the desperation of the NRA and their allies to use this issue to advance a radical reinterpretation of the Second Amendment."
The Alito dissent faulted the Court for allowing "our docket to be manipulated" by the city. Alito also noted that the new rules require "continuous and uninterrupted" travel if a gun owner is carrying a firearm, suggesting that gun owners can't stop to visit a relative or pick up a friend. Continued concerns over the legality of such stops are enough to keep the case alive, he argued.
"The bottom line is that petitioners, who sought ‘unrestricted access' to out-of-city ranges and competitions, are still subject to restrictions of undetermined meaning," Alito wrote.
Alito also said the New York City restrictions violated the landmark 2008 Heller precedent and expressed concern that lower courts across the country have been upholding other laws that similarly violate that ruling. In Heller, the Court found the Second Amendment protects an individual's gun rights and the only restrictions that are constitutional are ones with a long history of being applied, such as bans on especially dangerous guns or possession by especially dangerous people.
The case is No. 18-280 New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. City of New York.