The Supreme Court’s Choice To Take On A Small Gun Case Could Have Big Implications

Originally published on February 21, 2019 1:44 pm

For the first time in nearly a decade, the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case involving constitutional gun rights.

While the ruling will directly affect only a small group of people ‒ New York City residents who are licensed to own a handgun and want to be able to take that gun outside city limits ‒ the court’s decision to accept the case could signal a new willingness to wade into questions surrounding the Second Amendment.

The national gun control debate was rocked by landmark Supreme Court decisions in 2008 and 2010 that struck down handgun bans in Washington D.C. and Chicago, and for the first time explicitly granted constitutional protection for the individual right to possess a gun. Since then, however, the court has stayed away from gun cases.

Last year, the court declined to rule on a challenge to California’s 10-day waiting period. The justices have also been content in recent years to leave to the lower courts issues such as trigger locks and assault weapons bans.

It only takes four of the nine Supreme Court justices to agree to hear a case, so this decision doesn’t necessarily foretell bad news for gun control advocates.

But if this decision signals a willingness to hear more gun cases, the addition to the Supreme Court of conservative Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh — who has generally ruled in favor of gun rights — could have major implications for the future of gun laws across the country.

Whether or not that happens is “very hard to predict,” said Eugene Volokh, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles who has studied firearm policy.

The Supreme Court is generally more likely to take on cases with broad legal implications or to resolve conflicting decisions from lower courts, he said. This case, however, seems to have a narrow focus and lacks conflict in the lower courts.

Volokh said the court’s ultimate ruling in this case will be telling: If the majority opinion sticks to the confines of the case it is likely to have limited effects. But the justices could also rule in a way that promotes broad changes in gun laws.

The case at hand, which the court is expected to hear as soon as October, relates to New York City restrictions on where licensed handgun owners can take their weapons.

Before 2001, the city let people take handguns to and from shooting ranges or shooting competitions outside the city. But police found “widespread abuse” of the system, and caught people transporting handguns during times when no ranges where even open, according to court documents filed by the city.

Officials took away the right to transport handguns outside city limits and instructed the gun ranges located inside the city to keep a log of each visit, which police could later verify if they found someone transporting a handgun under suspicious circumstances.

Three New York City residents and the New York State Rifle & Pistol Association sued, arguing residents should be able to visit shooting ranges and shooting competitions outside city limits to “hone their shooting skills,” according to court documents.

And one of the plaintiffs, who owns a second home more than 100 miles away in upstate New York, said he should be able to use the same handgun for self defense in both places.

A Federal District Court judge and a three-judge panel in the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit each ruled in favor of New York City.

In its unanimous opinion, the Appeals Court judges said the city’s rules are less restrictive than those struck down in the two previous Supreme Court gun cases involving Washington D.C. and Chicago.

The judges pointed out that a gun owner with a second home could apply for a license in that jurisdiction if he wants to keep a handgun there.

And the judges wrote that seven gun ranges in New York City offer “ample facilities for live-fire training and practice available at market prices within reasonable commuting distance from the homes of all city residents.” The New York rules therefore do not impose a “substantial burden on the core Second Amendment right to own and possess handguns for self-defense,” the judges wrote.

The plaintiffs in September appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that the law “has the perverse consequence of forcing New Yorkers to leave their handguns behind in their vacant residences whenever they leave the city for an extended period of time.”

The court’s decision to hear the case, announced Tuesday, comes nearly a year after Associate Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a scathing dissent over the court’s refusal to hear the case involving California’s 10-day waiting period on gun purchases.

The 14-page document written by Thomas references the court’s “continued inaction” on gun cases, and asks whether the Second Amendment is “a disfavored right in this Court.”

“The right to keep and bear arms is apparently this Court’s constitutional orphan,” Thomas wrote. “I still believe that the Second Amendment cannot be ‘singled out for special ‒ and specially unfavorable ‒ treatment.'”

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

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