As mass shootings revive the U.S. debate over gun policy, the Supreme Court weighs whether to proceed with a Second Amendment showdown for the first time in a decade.
The justices in January said they would hear a challenge to New York City rules that sharply limited where licensed handguns could be taken while locked and unloaded. Three city handgun owners said the regulations were the most extreme firearm-transportation restrictions in the country.
But then the city loosened its rules — and said the case should be dismissed because there was nothing left for the court to decide. Gun-rights advocates called the city's move a transparent effort to avoid a ruling that would bolster the right to bear arms nationwide.
The court could say this month what it will do with the case. It will be acting against the backdrop of gun massacres that killed 31 people last weekend in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio — and ratcheted up the political acrimony in Washington. Congress has passed only incremental gun legislation despite heavy public support for some measures such as universal background checks.
A decision by the Supreme Court to forge ahead with the New York case would mean a ruling next year in the heat of the presidential campaign.
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Ironically, a decision to drop the case could open the way to an even bigger ruling in the nine-month term that starts in October. The justices could take up a more sweeping New Jersey case they have been holding while they consider the New York City dispute. The New Jersey case centers on the right to carry a loaded handgun in public -- an issue that has divided federal appeals courts.
New Jersey is one of seven states, including California and New York, that bar most people from carrying weapons in public. New Jersey law requires people to show a "justifiable need" to get a carry permit — a standard critics say very few people can meet.
Gun-rights supporters have been pressing the court for years to take up another Second Amendment case. The court hasn't heard one since it threw out a Chicago handgun ban in 2010, two years after it ruled for the first time that the Constitution protects individual firearm rights. The court could become more receptive to pro-gun arguments with the addition of the newest justice, Brett Kavanaugh.
For now, the question is whether the court will rule in the New York case, even though the city said in court papers Monday that the challengers have received "everything they have sought in this lawsuit."
Under the New York law, people with a licensed handgun at home were allowed to take it to one of seven shooting ranges in the city, but almost nowhere else. Weapons had to be locked and unloaded during travel, and ammunition had to be put in a separate container.
The residents who sued along with an advocacy group said they wanted to be able to take their handguns to more convenient target ranges outside the city and, in the case of a Staten Island man, to his second home.
The city and its supporters say those things are permissible after changes to New York City's regulations and a related state law.
"There's really no reason for the court to carry on with this issue," said Adam Winkler, a professor at UCLA Law School who wrote a book on the fight over the Second Amendment.
The residents said even the revised regulations are too strict, forbidding a handgun owner from stopping on the way out of town, requiring written permission to take a weapon to a gunsmith and precluding transport to a summer rental house. They urged the Supreme Court not to reward New York's "undisguised effort to avoid a precedent-setting loss."
New York state headed off a different Supreme Court clash earlier this year when it repealed a law banning so-called gravity knives -- easily opened with the flick of a wrist -- before the justices could say whether they would hear the appeal. The justices then turned away the challenge.
The gun-transportation case is different because the court has already agreed to hear it, said Erik Jaffe, a Washington lawyer who filed a brief opposing the restrictions. A federal appeals court upheld the restrictions.
"You've now wasted a whole bunch of time and forced people to write up a brief at the Supreme Court," Jaffe said.
Should the Supreme Court press ahead, arguments would probably be in December or early next year, with a decision by the end of its term in June.
That timetable would push any consideration of the New Jersey case into the following term. Given the divide among federal appeals courts, Winkler said that case will be a strong candidate for review regardless of what happens with the New York fight.
"There's got to be a pretty good likelihood they take the New Jersey case at the end of the day," Winkler said.
Michael R. Bloomberg, founder of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP, is a donor to groups that support gun control, including Everytown for Gun Safety.
This article was written by Greg Stohr, a reporter for Bloomberg.