Supreme Court Dismisses New York Handgun Case

Gun Rights

In a widely anticipated ruling on Monday, the Supreme Court dismissed New York State Rifle & Pistol Association Inc. v. City of New York, a major gun rights case challenging a now-repealed New York City law that banned transporting handguns to shooting ranges and second homes outside of city limits.

In an unsigned opinion that appeared to split 6-3, the court declined to rule on the merits of the case, stating the challenge is now “moot” because New York City has since repealed that law. But all four conservative justices signaled the court may take up another gun rights case soon.

A Challenge To NYC Gun Laws

The case was initially filed back in 2013 by an NRA-affiliated gun rights group and three New York state residents who are licensed gun owners.

They argued the law violated their Second Amendment rights, which had been affirmed by the landmark 2008 Supreme Court case District of Columbia v. Heller and the 2010 decision in McDonald v. City of Chicago. These decisions established a constitutionally protected, individual right to gun ownership. New York City argued that its law was essential to protecting public safety.

The case made its way up to the Supreme Court, which decided in 2019 to hear it. But before the court could hear arguments, New York City and New York state amended their laws in June 2019 to remove the ban on transporting handguns to shooting ranges and second homes.

The state also passed a law that would keep bans like that from being reenacted. This set the stage for a “mootness” hearing in December 2019, and the court allowed the case to move forward.

Kavanaugh Sides With Majority On ‘Mootness’

In the unsigned opinion on Monday, the justices ruled the NYSRPA’s challenge was “moot” because the city’s law no longer prevents licensed gun owners from bringing their guns to shooting ranges and second homes outside the city. The court wrote that this “is the precise relief that petitioners requested” and declined to rule on the merits.

The gun owners had added to their challenges that even if the new law allowed them to transport their guns outside New York City, it didn’t allow for stops along the way—i.e., to get gas or use the restroom. The Supreme Court also declined to rule on the merits of that challenge. The justices also made no ruling on a claim for damages under the old law, remanding the case back to the lower courts.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh concurred with the majority opinion that the case before the court was now “moot,” however he expressed concern that the lower courts “may not be properly applying Heller and McDonald” in deciding Second Amendment cases.

Writing in a 31-page dissent, Justice Samuel Alito was critical of the majority opinion, arguing that the dismissal for mootness wasn’t correct and that the decision “permits our docket to be manipulated in a way that should not be countenanced.” Alito wrote that even though New York City changed its laws, the changes do not go far enough because they don’t give “unrestricted access” to shooting ranges, competitions, and second homes, which was desired by these gun owners. Justices Neil Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas joined Alito.

What Happens Next

The case now returns to the lower courts, which will consider whether there is any merit to the newer claims brought by NYSRPA, including whether damages should be awarded related to the old New York City law.

In the meantime, there does seem to be a strong likelihood the Supreme Court will take up another gun rights case in the next term. A key question for the court is whether the individual right to keep and bear arms affirmed in Heller and McDonald applies outside of the home.

At the end of Kavanaugh’s concurrence, he writes that 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.”

SCOTUSblog appears to agree, and the major court-watcher tweeted Monday morning, “The opinions in today’s NYC gun rights case strongly suggest that there are at least four votes to consider another Second Amendment dispute very, very soon.”

Guns & America is a public media reporting project on the role of guns in American life.

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