photo by Marco Verch
The United States Supreme Court has held that individuals have a constitutional right to keep handguns in their homes for self-defense. New York City interprets that right in the narrowest conceivable way.
In New York City, guns must be licensed, and applicants who are not members of law enforcement have access to only one type of firearm license. Under that license’s terms, an owner may remove a licensed weapon from his or her home for transport only if that owner is bound for one of the seven handgun ranges within the five boroughs. This is true even in cases where that weapon is unloaded and locked in a separate container from its ammunition (required for the weapon’s legal transport to those shooting ranges). The owner may not take that gun – again, licensed, unloaded and in a locked container – anywhere else without breaking the city’s law.
You may have noticed that this means there is no legal way for New York City gun owners to remove their weapons from the city. Vacation homes, shooting ranges outside city limits, competitions or sporting events in New Jersey or upstate New York – all forbidden. As opponents of this arrangement note, this means the city would rather people leave guns sitting in their unoccupied homes for an extended period than see them take their weapons with them when they travel. The city, meanwhile, asserts that the rule exists to promote public safety.
It’s irrational – unless the city’s true goal is to impede the exercise of the aforementioned constitutional right to the maximum extent possible. Then it makes perfect sense.
The New York State Pistol and Rifle Association, along with a group of New York City gun owners, challenged the city’s ban in court. One of the owners wants to take his licensed firearm to a second home elsewhere in New York; the others say that shooting ranges outside of New York City are closer and more convenient. Lower courts upheld the city’s restriction, but the Supreme Court recently agreed to hear the case, likely in the fall.
New York City is much safer today than it was when I was growing up. We can credit some of that to societal changes and most of it to effective policing, including removing unpermitted weapons from the streets. But none of the credit belongs to a senseless rule that keeps law-abiding firearm owners from taking their guns with them when they exit the city.
I have little doubt that the Supreme Court will strike down the city’s rule when it gets around to deciding the case. As the appellants observed, “Both the City’s transport ban and the Second Circuit’s decision sanctioning it are extreme outliers even among Second Amendment decisions.” The court’s decision will most likely arrive next term, either in the final months of 2019 or, more likely, in the first half of 2020.
Handgun opponents, who dominate New York City’s politics, may have anticipated this but still figured it was worth it to draw their line in the sand, even if the law does not ultimately survive a court challenge. They may not be fully accounting for collateral costs. While the justices could rule narrowly on the question of whether the city’s law violates the Constitution, they could just as easily use this case to determine whether and to what extent the right to bear arms extends beyond a citizen’s home. If they pursue the latter course, the decision could easily reshape state and local gun laws across the country. Who knows how far the high court is willing to go in affirming gun ownership rights while it is in the process of throwing out New York’s regulation?
What we do know is that a ruling is apt to come down in the thick of the 2020 presidential campaign. Even if New York City’s gun law doesn’t backfire on New Yorkers directly in the form of expanded gun ownership rights, Democrats elsewhere could easily be caught in the political crossfire. Drawing attention to the nation’s cultural divide over gun laws has not worked to Democrats’ advantage in swing states in recent years. This will be an issue tailor-made for President Trump and GOP congressional candidates in Florida, Ohio, Missouri and other swing states, not to mention states like Georgia and Texas that Democrats aspire to flip.
In any conflict, it is always a good idea to choose one’s battles. New York City seems to have chosen one that it has little prospect of winning.