Supreme Court Refuses to Throw Out New York Gun Rights Case

Rejects NYC's attempted legal dodge

US Supreme Court / Getty Images
October 8, 2019

The Supreme Court announced on Monday that it would not dismiss a gun rights case against New York City, rejecting the city's request.

"The Respondents' Suggestion of Mootness is denied," the Court wrote in its order list. "The question of mootness will be subject to further consideration at oral argument, and the parties should be prepared to discuss it."

The city's request followed its abrupt decision to change a restrictive gun-control law only after SCOTUS accepted the case against it. The effort to loosen the transportation law, quietly supported by major gun control groups, was designed to subdue, or "moot," the complaint at the core of the case.

New York State Rifle & Pistol Association Inc. v. City of New York is the first substantial gun case the Supreme Court has taken in nearly a decade. It is also the first to explicitly deal with gun rights outside of the home. The case stems from New York City laws that allow those with premises licenses to only transport their guns to and from their homes and shooting ranges within New York City, and nearly nowhere else.

Plaintiffs argued in their brief to the Court that the restrictions "cannot be reconciled with a Second Amendment that protects individual rights or with any meaningful level of constitutional scrutiny." They also claimed that the laws violate the Commerce Clause and the right to travel.

"In implicit recognition that New York could not constitutionally insist that its residents use their golf clubs or obtain medical care only within the five boroughs, the City observes that firearms are different because they pose public safety concerns," they said. "But that was true in 1789, and the framing generation adopted the Second Amendment despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that governments never lack public safety rationales for disarming the citizenry. That the City believes that it can impose distinct disabilities on rights the Framers singled out for especial protection underscores the acute need for this Court's review."

In its response, the city initially argued the transport restrictions were constitutionally sound and necessary to protect public safety.

"Ultimately, the challenged rule does not force petitioners to choose between two fundamental rights," the brief said. "It neither infringes upon their Second Amendment rights nor on their fundamental right to travel. It only restricts their ability to transport firearms that are specifically licensed for possession and use inside their New York City residences through the City for the purpose of bringing them to shooting ranges or homes outside the City. That is not a fundamental right."

But, following SCOTUS's decision to hear the case, New York City changed its law to allow the exact thing—transporting firearms to places outside of New York City ranges and homes—that it claimed was not a right.

The city's about-face on the importance of the restrictions and their constitutionality came as gun control activists have attempted to avoid new Supreme Court scrutiny of gun laws. In addition to Everytown for Gun Safety and Giffords quietly lobbying on behalf of loosening the entire state's gun transportation law, gun control activists also publicly called on the city to change its laws in an effort to avoid a SCOTUS hearing.

"A ruling in NYSRPA vs. NYC could overturn not only the city's gun transport reg, but also 'may-issue' laws governing concealed carry of firearms in public in New York and seven other states," Ladd Everitt, director of the gun control group One Pulse for America, wrote in the New York Daily News. "The NRA spent $1 million to get Kavanaugh confirmed to the Supreme Court because they believe he will provide the decisive fifth vote to eliminate such discretion by declaring a new, individual right to carry guns in public."

Washington, D.C., made a similar attempt in 2017 after a federal appeals court declared its gun carry permit law unconstitutional. Instead of appealing the decision to SCOTUS, the city scrapped the law, which allowed officials to deny a permit even to those who passed a background check and completed training requirements. D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine said the city believed its gun carry law was constitutional, but that an appeal would be too risky.

"Public safety is, and has always been, my paramount concern," Racine said at the time. "I continue to believe the District's 'good reason' requirement is a common-sense, and constitutional, gun regulation. However, we must reckon with the fact that an adverse decision by the Supreme Court could have wide-ranging negative effects not just on District residents, but on the country as a whole."

Oral arguments in NYSRPA will center on whether the changes to the law mean that the city is no longer infringing on its citizens' rights. Plaintiffs have already argued that the changes make little practical difference and the city's law remains unconstitutional.

"The City's begrudging revisions to its restrictive transport ban reflect the City's unwavering view that the ability to transport a licensed handgun is a matter of government-conferred privilege, rather than a constitutional right," plaintiffs wrote in a filing with the Court. "As a consequence, the revised regulations demand continuous and uninterrupted transport (forbidding a stop at a gas station or coffee shop en route), require written permission before a handgun can be taken to a gunsmith, and preclude transport to a summer rental house ... The (in)adequacy of such miserly accommodations presents no less a live controversy when the City unilaterally imposes them as a supposed mooting event."

The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the case on December 2.