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WASHINGTON –– During arguments in their first case about gun control in just over a decade, a majority of the Supreme Court’s justices seemed to not want to talk about it at all.
“What’s left of this case?” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said Monday.
New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. City of New York centers on the constitutionality of a now-defunct ordinance in New York City that restricted residents’ ability to carry their handguns out of the city. But a ruling from the Supreme Court could also have broader implications on the right to carry a gun outside the home, in general.
Worried about that precise scenario — that the Supreme Court would issue a broad ruling that expands the Second Amendment — legislators in New York amended the ordinance in July. Since the law in question was changed significantly, lawyers for the city argued the case was null-and-void and the justices needn’t worry about ruling at all.
And the court’s liberal justices, at least, appeared convinced. “You're asking us to opine on a law that's not on the books anymore,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor said shortly after Ginsberg’s comment.
Even the more moderate John Roberts, the court’s chief justice, largely declined to engage with the substance of the case. If the court declines to rule on the case’s merits, it allows the justices to sidestep a weighty decision, one the Supreme Court has repeatedly passed on since the District of Columbia v. Heller affirmed the individual right to own guns in 2008.
“If the court did keep this case and get into the merits [of it], there’s a chance they could issue an opinion that really affects all the gun safety laws we have in place around the country, because it would require courts to review them under this extreme legal standard,” Hannah Shearer, the Giffords Law Center Litigation Director, told VICE News.
But after watching the oral arguments on Monday, Shearer said, “We’re cautiously optimistic that the court is going to do the right thing and dismiss the case as moot.”
On the other hand, Justices Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch, among the more conservative members of the nine-justice court, appeared to advocate in favor of issuing a ruling in the case.
“You're asking us to opine on a law that's not on the books anymore.”
Gorsuch in particular argued that the updated ordinance in New York still restricts residents’ ability to carry guns freely and merits a response from the court, which has grown markedly more conservative since its last gun ruling. (In 2017, Gorsuch joined a dissent penned by Justice Clarence Thomas, who lamented that courts have exhibited a “distressing trend: the treatment of the Second Amendment as a disfavored right.” )
The court’s newest addition, associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh, has been lauded by the National Rifle Association as an “outstanding choice” for the bench and previously sympathized with gun rights activists in work he published while serving on a D.C.-area appeals court. Kavanaugh, however, didn’t ask a single question during the arguments on Monday.
The country’s relationship to guns has changed dramatically as well. The prevalence of mass shootings –– over 1,100 people have died in mass shootings since 2009 –– has galvanized support for stricter gun control.
Policy measures like universal background checks, increased funding for mental health screenings, mandatory gun licenses, and so-called “red flag” laws all enjoy broad support from both Republicans and Democrats. Even 77% of gun owners agree that Congress should pass a background check requirement for people looking to buy a gun.
Cover image: Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg attends a panel with former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2019, at Georgetown Law's second annual Ruth Bader Ginsburg Lecture, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)