Supreme Court Justices Debate Tossing Out Gun-Rights Case

Greg Stohr

(Bloomberg) -- U.S. Supreme Court justices weighed tossing out a New York City firearms case, a move that would dash the hopes of gun-rights advocates seeking an expansion of Second Amendment protections.

The justices spent most of an hour-long argument in Washington Monday debating whether to issue a ruling at all, now that New York City has scrapped the handgun-transportation restrictions at the center of the fight. Gun-rights advocates, backed by President Donald Trump, are urging the justices to rule on the merits and bolster the Second Amendment.

The residents say the now-defunct rules forced them to stop attending shooting competitions and taking licensed handguns to a second home. After the court agreed to hear the case, the city and state changed the rules in an effort to have the dispute thrown out as moot.

A New York affiliate of the National Rifle Association is joining the three men in pressing the appeal. The city’s supporters include Everytown for Gun Safety, an advocacy group started by Michael Bloomberg, who is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News. Bloomberg, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for president, was mayor of New York from 2002 to 2013.

Chief Justice John Roberts, who could cast the pivotal vote, sought assurances from the city’s lawyer that the earlier restrictions wouldn’t have any lingering effects. Roberts asked whether a violation of the earlier law would be held against someone who applied for a license under the new rules.

“It absolutely will not,” New York’s lawyer, Richard Dearing, responded.

Quiet Kavanaugh

Roberts didn’t clearly indicate whether he was satisfied by that answer. But the chief justice asked no questions about the constitutional issues, perhaps suggesting he didn’t see the need to reach them. Another potential swing vote, Justice Brett Kavanaugh, didn’t ask any questions at all.

The argument was the court’s first in almost a decade on the reach of the Second Amendment. The court’s decision probably will come next year in the heat of the presidential campaign.

Under the original New York law, people with a licensed handgun at home were allowed to take it to one of seven shooting ranges in the city, but almost nowhere else. Weapons needed to be locked and unloaded during travel, and ammunition had to be put in a separate container. The new rules let people take a gun to a second home or shooting range outside the city.

The court’s Democratic appointees indicated they were inclined to declare the dispute moot.

“What’s left of this case?” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg asked. “The petitioners have gotten all the relief that they sought.”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor said the city had “thrown in the towel.”

Coffee Break

Paul Clement, representing the residents and gun-rights group, said the new rules don’t ensure that people traveling out of the city could stop for coffee along the way.

“They made clear that the kind of transport they were allowing, at least within the City of New York, had to be continuous and uninterrupted,” Clement said.

Dearing told the justices that the city wouldn’t enforce the law against someone who stopped for coffee, food, gas or a restroom.

But that wasn’t enough for Justice Samuel Alito, who questioned whether a person traveling with a handgun could stop and see his mother along the way.

“What they have obtained as a result of the new city ordinance and the new state law is a rule that says, yes, you can take the firearm to a firing range outside of New York City, but it must be a direct trip,” Alito said. “It can’t include an hour spent with your mother.”

Deputy Solicitor General Jeffrey Wall, representing the Trump administration, called the continuous-travel dispute a “close call.” But he offered a different argument for keeping the case alive, saying the residents might be entitled to seek damages.

That argument seemed to resonate with Justice Neil Gorsuch. “Why isn’t the prospect of allowing damages to be added to the complaint enough?” he asked Dearing. Gorsuch said the city had engaged in “herculean, late-breaking efforts to moot the case.”

The case is New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. New York, 18-280.

(Updates with excerpts from argument starting in sixth paragraph)

To contact the reporter on this story: Greg Stohr in Washington at gstohr@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Joe Sobczyk at jsobczyk@bloomberg.net, Laurie Asséo, Elizabeth Wasserman

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