Supreme Court May Punt Rather Than Rule on Key Gun-Rights Case

December 2, 2019by David G. Savage
U.S. Supreme Court, Nov. 4, 2019 (Photo by Dan McCue)

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court justices sounded uncertain Monday over whether to rule on a major gun-rights case, since New York City has repealed the disputed law at issue that restricted carrying a licensed weapon outside the city.

The gun owners who sued “got everything they asked for,” New York City’s attorney Richard Dearing told the court.

The four liberal justices made clear they thought the 2nd Amendment case — New York State Rifle & Pistol Assn. vs. City of New York — should be dismissed as moot. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. also questioned what was left of the dispute that launched the case, while new Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh listened but asked no questions during the argument.

The New York City case has drawn wide attention because the high court has said nothing about the scope of the 2nd Amendment for nearly a decade.

Gun-rights advocates are urging the court to rule that the 2nd Amendment’s right to “bear arms” includes the right to carry a weapon when leaving home. They say that in California and elsewhere, gun owners are restricted in carrying licensed firearms when they travel.

Former Solicitor Gen. Paul Clement, who represents the New York gun owners who sued, said the 2nd Amendment is not a “home-bound right.” In early American history, it was understood that gun owners would carry their weapon with them, including when serving in a militia. He urged the court to issue a clear ruling upholding such a right to “bear arms.”

He acknowledged, however, that the “city has struggled to make this case go away.”

Gun-rights advocates have been optimistic about defeating local ordinances now that Kavanaugh has replaced Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who had been reluctant to strike down most restrictions on firearms.

In 2008 and 2010, the justices struck down city ordinances in Washington, D.C., and Chicago that prohibited the private possession of handguns at home. But since then, the justices have said nothing about the scope of the 2nd Amendment. They have also turned down challenges to local and state laws that restricted the sale of semiautomatic rifles.

But to prevail on Monday, gun-rights advocates had to first convince the justices that there remains a live dispute over a former city regulation that barred gun owners who were licensed to have a gun on their “premises” from carrying it in their car, except to travel to a shooting range in the city. New York also authorized licenses to “carry” a gun, but those were hard to obtain. Gun owners had to show they had a special need to be armed in public.

However, the city repealed its restriction on gun owners transporting their weapons, and in July, the state passed a law that gave gun owners a right to carry their licensed guns to any other authorized location, such as a second home or a shooting range.

But the lawyers who challenged the New York City ordinance, joined by the Trump administration, say the court should issue a ruling to make clear that any such limits on transporting legal weapons were unconstitutional. They argued that gun owners could still face restrictions depending on when and where they transported their weapons.

“In this case, the court should confirm that the 2nd Amendment protects the right of a law-abiding, responsible citizen to take his firearm outside his home, and to transport it to other places, such as a second home or a firing range,” Solicitor Gen. Noel Francisco said in his brief to the court. “Read naturally, the right to ‘bear’ firearms includes the right to transport firearms outside the home.”

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