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Supreme Court Hears Arguments On What Could Be Landmark 2nd Amendment Case


The U.S. Supreme Court heard a major gun rights case today - the first in nearly a decade. Many people were expecting fireworks, but the high court's debate focused almost exclusively on whether the case should be dismissed as moot. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: At issue was a New York law that allowed New York City residents to have a permit for a gun at home but barred them from transporting the gun elsewhere except to seven New York City shooting ranges. Three handgun owners who had such premises permits challenged the law as a violation of their right to bear arms because they could not transport their guns to shooting ranges in competitions outside the city or to second homes. The problem today for those gun owners was that New York state and New York City abandoned the law earlier this year after the Supreme Court said it would review it.

New York City corporation counsel James Johnson.


JAMES JOHNSON: New York City and New York state actually gave them everything that they had asked for before this argument. That was made very plain in this argument today.

TOTENBERG: Indeed, it was. And the court's liberals drove home the point. Justice Ginsburg - the state changed this law, so what's left of the case? Justice Sotomayor - you're asking us to decide a case in which the other side has thrown in the towel and completely given you every single thing you demanded in your complaint. Lawyer Paul Clement, representing the gun owners, argued that the new regulations for New York City still only permit continuous and uninterrupted gun transport within the city. That, he suggested, might put in doubt a stop for coffee or a bathroom break.

Representing the Trump administration, Deputy Solicitor General Jeffrey Wall tried to argue that the case is still alive because the plaintiffs could be awarded damages. Justice Ginsburg - but they never asked for damages. Has the solicitor general ever asked this court to allow such a late interjection of a damages claim in order to save a case from being thrown out as moot? Wall conceded he knew of no such case.

Next up to the lectern was Richard Dearing, who serves as deputy counsel for the city of New York. He emphasized that this lawsuit was brought against the city regulations for a premises license, not a carry license. A premises license, he noted, is granted for the home only, though it must allow certain limited transport of the licensed handgun. The plaintiffs, he observed, asked only for specified additional transport of these guns, and the city, in the end, gave the handgun owners everything they had asked for. That, he suggested, is a good thing, not a bad one. The government should respond to litigation, should assess its laws when they're challenged. That, he said, is the democratic process.

Justice Alito - suppose the gun owner stops to visit his mother for a couple of hours. Would that violate the old law? Answer - those kinds of questions were never at issue when the old law was challenged. Justice Alito - so why then is this case moot, because the plaintiffs didn't get all that they wanted? They wanted a declaration that the old law was unconstitutional, period. Lawyer Dearing - what they said they wanted was a court order that allowed them to transport handguns to shooting ranges outside the city and to homes outside the city.

With Justices Alito and Gorsuch carrying the role of antagonists to New York, the question was where the rest of the court stood. Justice Thomas, a purist when it comes to gun rights, asked no questions, as usual. Justice Kavanaugh has a far more gun-friendly record than the justice he replaced last year, Justice Kennedy, but Kavanaugh asked no questions either.

Chief Justice Roberts asked just a few questions. He wanted to know if the city of New York could deny a premises gun license to the plaintiffs in this case because they'd admitted previously violating the law. Is the city committed to closing the book on the old law, he asked? Yes, replied lawyer Dearing, noting that the plaintiffs have already had their licenses renewed twice since challenging the old New York law. But even if this case is rendered moot, others are waiting in the wings.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.