What if you lived in a major metropolitan area that said you were free to practice the religion of your choice while within its jurisdiction, but in order to worship outside of that jurisdiction, you were required to first ask permission? And what if that permission was rarely granted? Would you feel like your right to exercise the religion of your choice is still protected?
Now imagine you are a newspaper publisher in that same city. You are allowed to distribute your articles within that jurisdiction without any restrictions against editorial content, but if you want to send any copies outside the boundaries of the city, each issue must be submitted for review by city officials who may or may not deem it suitable to be read outside the confines of their control. Is that still free speech and a free press?
The vast majority of Americans would consider such regulations on religion or speech to be completely antithetical to what our Founding Fathers had in mind when they wrote the First Amendment. And they would be correct.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at a case involving the Second Amendment that could soon be heard by the Supreme Court of the United States.
New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. The City of New York was filed in 2013 to challenge the constitutionality of an interpretation of New York City law that has created an absurd rule; a rule that virtually eliminates the ability of law-abiding handgun owners to transport a lawfully owned handgun outside of New York City’s five boroughs.
That’s right. If you legally own a handgun in New York City, even though you have successfully navigated the rigorous scheme to acquire a license to keep a handgun in your home (which is issued at the discretion of the licensing officer), you cannot take the firearm out of your home. The one exception would be to take your handgun to one of the seven shooting ranges within the city.
Remember, the license we are talking about is just to allow you to lawfully possess a handgun within your home. While there is another license “available” to New York City residents that allows for carrying a firearm for personal protection, the process for acquiring one of those is even more difficult. Some might call it impossible. The vast majority of law-abiding citizens would not “qualify” for one, as its issuance carries with it even more discretion than the at-home license. Of course, if one is very wealthy or very well connected the odds get a little better.
So, the license that allows you to legally possess a handgun within your own home is just that.
Want to visit a shooting range outside the city with your legally owned handgun? Too bad. Do you plan to spend some time visiting family in another state, or even stay in your own second home, and want to bring your pistol? Well, that would be illegal. Perhaps you’d like to take part in hunting with your handgun somewhere that allows such activity. You’ll have to leave your handgun at home, and borrow one that may be completely different than the one with which you are most familiar. Not only will that diminish your possibility of a successful hunt, but it could raise some safety concerns. Competitive handgun shooting event outside the city? Please refer to the points raised about hunting.
If all this sounds ridiculous, and a clear infringement on our Right to Keep and Bear Arms, then this is obviously not your first time reading.
Fortunately, NYSRPA v. NYC, a legal challenge supported by NRA, is positioned to potentially strike this clearly unconstitutional rule.
The case has been slowly making its way through the judicial process, although without much fanfare. As rulings supporting the Second Amendment are rare in this particular judicial jurisdiction, there has also not been much success. Now, however, the case is on the doorsteps of the US Supreme Court, where it not only stands a fair chance of being considered from the perspective of the Second Amendment’s original intent, but could have a national impact on how the battle over our right to keep and bear arms will proceed for future generations.
As most readers of our alerts know, it has been a decade since the landmark Supreme Court ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller. That ruling recognized that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to keep and bear arms. Two years later, in McDonald v. Chicago, that recognition of an individual right was incorporated to the states. Since those decisions, however, the Supreme Court has not appeared to be very eager to take up other challenges to laws that impose restrictions on the Second Amendment.
By not taking up other challenges, many lower court rulings have been allowed to stand; rulings that seem to thumb their noses at the clear intent of the landmark Heller and McDonald rulings.
One of the most basic principles at stake in the NYSRPA case is whether a core aspect of the individual right protected under the Second Amendment includes not just the right to personal protection within the home, but whether that protection extends outside the home. And if it is a core aspect of a fundamental right (it is), what standards can be used to determine if a particular law is an unconstitutional infringement on that right.
When determining the constitutionality of laws, courts often use a tiered system of standards. The lowest standard is “rational basis review.” Basically, courts ask whether a particular law is “rationally related” to an aspect of actual government interest, like maintaining infrastructure, or providing for public safety. There really is no hard and fast rule for what is government interest, so, theoretically, laws can be upheld if the government interest argument is persuasive enough.
But not when it comes to laws that involve a fundamental right. In those cases, higher standards must be met.
Higher standards include heightened scrutiny, intermediate scrutiny, and strict scrutiny. At these levels, the government is expected to show not just that a law is “rationally related” to an aspect of government interest, but that the law actually furthers that interest. The law should also be shown to be narrowly tailored and minimally restrictive. Even in those cases, though, the government cannot be seen to be infringing on a fundamental right.
In NYSRPA v. NYC, the last court to handle the case was the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. That court upheld the law, but in doing so, seemed to completely ignore Heller, McDonald, and the standards for judicial review.
New York City argued its ridiculous restrictions on transporting handguns out of its jurisdiction has some sort of relationship to its interest in protecting public safety within its jurisdiction. This is an absurd argument, of course. The premise that handguns being transported outside of the city has any bearing on what happens within the city cannot be seriously considered an aspect of New York City government interest.
In fact, one aspect of the City’s argument was presented in an affidavit suggesting “premises license holders ‘are just as susceptible as anyone else to stressful situations,’ including driving situations that can lead to road rage, ‘crowd situations, demonstrations, family disputes,’ and other situations.” But this would seem to be an argument (although a baseless one) to prohibit people from transporting handguns in vehicles within the city, since that is the scope of New York City’s interest in public safety.
Even if someone were to accept this as a valid argument, the City provided no support for such a claim. Not only should the law have failed the lowest level of review, it surely should have failed any other level of scrutiny.
There are many reasons for the Supreme Court to take up this appeal and overturn the lower court’s ruling. Arguments that lower courts have failed to apply the correct level of scrutiny for a law infringing on a fundamental right are clear. In addition, by prohibiting the transport of handguns outside of the city to take part in activities in other states, the regulation would seem to violate the Commerce Clause, as it “deprive[s] citizens of their right to have access to the markets of other States on equal terms,” as held in Granholm v. Heald. And, of course it violates the fundamental right to travel by placing on the condition of travel the necessity to give up another fundamental right.
Furthermore, without the Supreme Court following up its landmark Heller and McDonald rulings by taking up related cases, and with lower courts continuing to render differing, contradictory rulings on other cases related to the Second Amendment and what it means since Heller/McDonald, we are left with a patchwork of confusing and conflicting interpretations of what is and is not constitutional when it comes to our rights as law-abiding gun owners.
NRA has supported the plaintiffs in this suit for years, but now a group of sixteen governors and state Attorneys General, along with leading Law Enforcement Organizations, have filed two amicus briefs before the US Supreme Court supporting the idea that the nation’s highest Court needs to look long and hard at this foolish and clearly unconstitutional practice. You can rest assured that we will continue to provide updates on what could be a critical case that will help to clearly define the Second Amendment for years to come.