The Supreme Court's front steps

The U.S. Supreme Court last Monday avoided ruling on the constitutionality a New York gun law, but that didn’t stop Justice Samuel Alito from tearing into the original New York City law, describing it as “clearly unconstitutional.” The Justices instead ruled in an unsigned opinion that the case is now “moot” because of changes made to the law by New York City officials.

The controversial law initially restricted the transport of firearms outside city limits, even if the guns in questions were licensed with the state and were unloaded and locked in a container. That meant New York City residents would not be able to leave the city with their firearms for any legal purpose. Justifiably, Second Amendment advocates saw this draconian law for what it was: A massive restriction on the freedoms of gun owners by prohibiting their right to travel freely in New York and elsewhere. Plaintiffs who filed suit against New York City officials claimed the Second Amendment requires “unrestricted access to gun ranges and shooting events in order to practice and perfect safe gun handling skills.”

Fearing growing publish backlash and an unfavorable ruling in court, gun control advocates urged state officials to amend the law to overrule the original version. The city did so, and state lawmakers enacted a second law preventing city officials from changing their minds later. The city later admitted the challenged regulations had no bearing on public safety. Nevertheless, the changes to the law specifically required that gun owners travel “directly” between their homes and certain ‘permitted destinations’ and that any portion of the trip within the city itself had to be “continuous and uninterrupted.”

The highest court’s decision to even hear the case scared anti-gun advocates and drew veiled threats from Democrat senators: “The Supreme Court is not well. And the people know it. Perhaps the Court can heal itself before the public demands it be ‘restructured in order to reduce the influence of politics’,” the senators wrote in a brief filed in the case. The majority Justices’ refusal to resolve the case as it currently stands drew two opinions from individual justices: Justice Brett Kavanaugh (appointed by Trump in 2018) agreed with the majority that the case was moot.

Justice Samuel Alito issued a written dissent that ran 31 pages long and excoriated the city’s law as unconstitutional. Alito also declared federal and state courts may not be applying the Supreme Court’s Heller and McDonald gun rights rulings appropriately. Justice Kavanaugh wrote separately that he agreed with Alito’s dissent, adding: “I share JUSTICE 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.”

In his dissent, Justice Alito explained the various reasons why he feels the case is not moot: “In this case, we must apply the well-established standards for determining whether a case is moot, and under those standards, we still have a live case before us.” Alito specifically mentioned the law’s undefined requirements of “direct” trips and “uninterrupted” travel. He noted this would not permit the “unrestricted access” plaintiffs claimed they had a right to, because it would prohibit breaks for gas, food, or to reach destinations that might be several hours away. Alito concluded the Supreme Court thus had jurisdiction to decide whether the relief sought by the plaintiffs was adequately provided.

Alito further analyzed the permits of the plaintiffs’ Second Amendment claims, noting that to properly exercise such rights, gun owners must have the abilility “to take guns to a range in order to gain and maintain the skill necessary to use it responsibly.” Alito argued that because the city’s restrictions affected this core aspect of the Second Amendment, the constitutionality of the case should be ruled upon by the Court.

Although the Court refused an opportunity to correctly affirm basic gun rights against unconstitutional policies like restricting travel, there is hope yet for pro-2A rulings by SCOTUS. The Court signaled that it may consider another Second Amendment case “soon”, as Justice Kavanaugh put in his concurrence. As of last Tuesday, the Court distributed 10 additional gun cases to be considered during a Friday conference on which new cases the court may hear.

Three of these cases include one challenging New Jersey’s strict concealed-carry permit requirements. Rogers v. Grewal seeks to confirm whether the Second Amendment protects the right to carry a firearm outside the home for self-defense, and whether governments can restrict the right to carry based on a “special need” to carry a firearm. Malpasso v. Pallozzi seeks to confirm the same concealed-carry rights in Maryland. Worman v. Healey challenges Massachusetts’ ban on the possession of alleged “assault weapons” and large-capacity magazines.


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