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Supreme Court dodges N.Y. firearms case in defeat for gun rights advocates

The ordinance at issue said residents with the proper permits could take handguns outside their homes to city shooting ranges under certain conditions.
Image: Guns seized by the New York Police Department at a press conference on Aug. 19, 2013.
Guns seized by the New York Police Department at a news conference in August 2013.Andrew Burton / Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday disappointed gun rights advocates who were hoping for a major decision on Second Amendment freedoms when it declined to rule on the merits of a New York City gun restriction that is no longer on the books.

By a 6-3 vote, the justices said the case was moot because the law had been repealed. But the ruling gave opponents a chance to go back to the lower courts and argue that the city nonetheless imposed new restrictions on gun owners who want to take their weapons outside the city to second homes or to practice at shooting ranges.

Justice Samuel Alito, joined by fellow conservatives Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch, said the court should have decided the case and declared the restriction unconstitutional.

Since it ruled in 2008 that the Second Amendment provides an individual right to keep a handgun at home for self-defense, the court has avoided taking up any other gun rights cases. The court's willingness to consider the New York case, even though the law was repealed, led supporters of gun rights to hope that it could lead to a ruling about the right to bear arms outside the home.

The New York ordinance at issue, adopted in 2001, said residents with the proper permits could take handguns outside their homes to city shooting ranges, provided they were unloaded in locked containers. But the guns could not be taken beyond the city limits.

Three residents challenged the provision, saying they wanted to take their firearms outside the city to gun ranges, shooting competitions and second homes. They argued that the law violated their Second Amendment rights and said transporting an unloaded gun in a locked container did not pose any significant safety risk. Two lower courts rejected their claims and upheld the law, and the residents asked the Supreme Court to take the case.

But after the court granted their appeal, the city repealed the ordinance, and the New York Legislature passed a law prohibiting local governments in the state from enacting similar restrictions.

Monday's unsigned majority opinion said some residual questions are unanswered. The revised city ordinance says that when residents want to take their guns outside the city limits, their trips must be "direct, continuous, and uninterrupted." The city maintains that routine stops for gas, food or restroom breaks are allowed, but the challengers say the new rule is unclear.

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The court also said another question remains — whether the challengers can sue for damages under the old law.

The court's newest member, Brett Kavanaugh, joined the majority opinion. But in a brief concurrence, he said the court should address the larger Second Amendment issue by taking up other challenges to gun restrictions — such as those on carrying guns outside the home — that the court has so far declined to consider.