The Supreme Court on Monday has dismissed a dispute challenging New York City’s gun transportation restrictions because the justices ruled the controversy was no longer live after the city repealed those rules.
The justices’ decision to not consider the dispute over the Second Amendment is expected to disappoint gun owners and activists, who had anticipated a major ruling in the case amid heightened tensions about gun rights.
The majority in the 6-3 unsigned opinion said the case was rendered moot after New York City rescinded its rule that restricted gun owners from transporting licensed handguns to any location outside city limits such as an out-of-city shooting range or a second home after the top court agreed to take up the case in early 2019.
The city’s new rule allows licensed gun owners to transport firearms to a second home, business, or any other place gun possession is permitted. The majority said in their opinion that this is “the precise relief that petitioners requested in the prayer for relief in their complaint. (pdf)”
The New York State Rifle and Pistol Association and several individuals brought the suit against the city in 2013 alleging that the ban violates the Second Amendment, the Commerce Clause, and the fundamental right to travel.
The city argues that the transport ban promotes public safety by limiting the presence of handguns on city streets. The ban also forces residents to leave behind their handguns in vacant homes when traveling out of town, which arguably poses a greater safety risk.
The federal district and appellate courts ruled in favor of the city. The Supreme Court then agreed to hear the association’s appeal.
After the Supreme Court’s decision to take up the case, the city moved to ease its rules on firearm transportation.
Following the new rule’s announcement, the city attempted to dismiss the appeal (pdf) by arguing that the case was moot as the city had given the gun owners what they had sought in the lawsuit. But gun owners argued (pdf) that the proposed rules would not moot the case because they do not address whether the original ban was constitutional. They also argued that the introduction of the city’s amendments is an effort to frustrate the court’s review of the case.
The Supreme Court went ahead with oral arguments on Dec. 2. Most of the debate during that hearing was on the issue of “mootness,” since the circumstances in the case had changed due to the city’s actions to repeal their restrictions.
The court on Monday declined to hear the gun owner’s claims but sent the case back to the lower courts to decide on whether they could seek damages in respect to the city’s previous gun restrictions or make claims against the new rules.
Justice Samuel Alito dissented, arguing that the case was not moot and that the city had violated the gun owner’s second amendment. He was joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch.
“The City’s public safety arguments were weak on their face, were not substantiated in any way, and were accepted below with no serious probing. And once we granted review in this case, the City’s public safety concerns evaporated,” Alito wrote.
Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who wrote a concurring opinion, agreed with the majority that the case was moot but agreed with parts of Alito’s analysis, saying that some federal and state courts may not have properly applied Supreme Court decisions that recognize the right to keep and bear arms.
“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,” Kavanaugh wrote.