As NRA-ILA Executive Director Chris W. Cox reported in March, the U.S. Supreme Court has taken up a challenge by an NRA state affiliate to a New York City gun control scheme that effectively prohibits lawfully licensed handgun owners from leaving the city with their own firearms. The plaintiffs in the case have raised a number of objections to the regime, the foremost of which is that it violates the Second Amendment. The case is New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. New York City.
Given the uniquely oppressive and bizarre nature of the challenged restrictions, many observers believe the real question in the case isn’t whether New York City will lose but on what grounds and how badly.
The City itself, in fact, recently made a desperate attempt to avoid a ruling on its laws by claiming to the court that it was in the process of revising the regulations to address the issues raised in the case. The court rejected that gambit, and proceedings in the case have continued, with a number of stakeholders filing friend of the court (amicus curiae) briefs this week to help inform the justices’ deliberations.
Chief among them was none other than the Trump administration, with the Department of Justice (DOJ) filing a brief in support of the plaintiffs. The DOJ offered two possible bases for finding New York City’s regulations unconstitutional, including that the “transport ban infringes the right to keep and bear arms guaranteed by the Second and Fourteenth Amendments.”
The government’s brief offers the most detailed account to date of how the Trump administration views the Second Amendment. Critically, it makes clear that the Second Amendment does not end at the property line of one’s own home.
“The Second Amendment guarantees both the right to ‘keep’ and the right to ‘bear’ firearms,” the brief states. “Read naturally, the right to ‘bear’ firearms includes the right to transport firearms outside the home; otherwise, the right to ‘bear’ would add nothing to the right to ‘keep.’”
The administration also seeks to establish a method for resolving future cases that is faithful to the Supreme Court’s opinion in District of Columbia v. Heller, which has been largely ignored by lower courts. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals decision being challenged in the New York City case, like many other lower court Second Amendment decisions before it, used a judicial balancing test that Heller specifically rejected to uphold the disputed gun control measures.
The government’s brief, on the other hand, urges the court to “look first to the text of the Second Amendment, the history of the right to keep and bear arms before ratification, and the tradition of gun regulation after ratification” to judge the validity of a gun control law.
Applying this test to New York City’s travel ban, it states:
Few laws in the history of our Nation, or even in contemporary times, have come close to such a sweeping prohibition on the transportation of arms. And on some of the rare occasions in the 19th and 20th centuries when state and local governments have adopted such prohibitions, state courts have struck them down. That is enough to establish that the transport ban is unconstitutional.
Also filing in support of the plaintiffs was a coalition of pro-gun states led by Louisiana and including Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgie, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, and West Virginia. Like the DOJ’s brief, the states’ brief urges the Supreme Court to use text, history, and tradition to find that New York City’s travel ban violates the Second and Fourteenth Amendment.
Alternatively, the states’ brief argues, if the court should adopt the Second Circuit’s approach to applying a tiered level of scrutiny, it should subject the law to a rigorously applied heighted scrutiny. “New York City could not possibly meet such scrutiny here,” the brief concludes.
One hundred and twenty pro-gun members of Congress, led by Bradley Byrne (R-Ala.), urged the court to rule in favor of the plaintiffs as well. Emphasizing that “[t]he Second Amendment enshrines the fundamental right of citizens to protect themselves from violence and tyranny,” the congressional brief joined the chorus criticizing the dismissive treatment the Second Amendment has received in the lower courts.
“This case,” according to that brief, “is a quintessential example of how courts of appeals have treated the right to keep and bear arms as a second-class right by not reviewing regulations infringing on the right with any meaningful scrutiny.” It then argues that whether the court applies text, history, or tradition or a suitably stringent level of scrutiny, the challenged New York City regime must fail.
The NRA weighed in on the case with an amicus brief of our own. That brief amplifies the arguments of the government, the states, and the pro-gun members of Congress. It points out that “[i[n the decade since [Heller] was handed down, most lower federal courts have openly flouted [the Supreme Court’s] instructions” on how to resolve Second Amendment cases.
It goes on to state that “because Respondents’ transport ban restricts both the right to keep and to bear arms, and because it is unsupported by any even remotely analogous restriction historically accepted by the People as consistent with the Second Amendment, this Court should strike it down categorically, like in Heller, without resorting to the interest-balancing ‘tiers of scrutiny.’”
Tellingly, even certain well-known gun control groups – including the Giffords Law Center and the Brady Campaign – filed briefs that made no attempt to argue that New York City’s travel ban survives Second Amendment scrutiny. Rather, their briefs merely urge the court to rule narrowly in the case and in a way that preserves ample leeway for states and localities to continue to regulate firearms.
This case illustrates what the legacy media and other anti-gun interests are hoping gun owners ignore; that the election of President Trump, his appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court, and the work of the National Rifle Association all continue to play a vital role in preserving the right to keep and bear arms.