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A historic Second Amendment showdown in the Supreme Court ends with a whimper

Gun rights groups are still likely to win a big Supreme Court victory, but they won’t win it this term.

AR-15 style rifles and shotguns for sale at Blue Ridge Arsenal gun store in Chantilly, Virginia, on January 9, 2015.
Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Ian Millhiser is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he focuses on the Supreme Court, the Constitution, and the decline of liberal democracy in the United States. He received a JD from Duke University and is the author of two books on the Supreme Court.

New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. City of New York was a Supreme Court case that, at one point, seemed likely to significantly expand the Second Amendment and hand a massive victory to gun groups.

But on Monday morning, the Supreme Court handed down its opinion, and New York State Rifle ended in a whimper. The Court, by a 6-3 vote, determined that the case, at least as it stands now, is moot — meaning that there is no longer a live dispute between the two parties. And the justices sent the case back down to a lower court to determine whether there are any dormant issues in this lawsuit that could be revived.

Justice Samuel Alito wrote a dissenting opinion, which was joined by Justice Neil Gorsuch and largely joined by Justice Clarence Thomas.

As a practical matter, the Court’s decision means that it will avoid — for now — the question of whether to extend the Second Amendment.

The case, at least as it arrived at the Supreme Court, involved a very narrow issue.

New York City offers two kinds of licenses to gun owners. A “carry” license permits them to carry a handgun for “target practice, hunting, or self-defense.” The less permissive “premises” license, meanwhile, permits a gun owner to “have and possess in his dwelling” a handgun. Under a now-repealed rule, premise license holders were only allowed to bring the gun out of their home for limited purposes, including to practice shooting at seven gun ranges.

The plaintiffs in New York State Rifle brought a narrow challenge to this framework. As a federal appeals court explained in an opinion upholding the city’s repealed rule, some of the plaintiffs “seek to transport their handguns to shooting ranges and competitions outside New York City.” One plaintiff also owns two homes, and he wants to be able to transport the same gun between those two homes.

After the Supreme Court agreed to hear this case, New York State enacted a law permitting people with premises licenses to do the very things these plaintiffs said they wished to do: bring their guns to shooting ranges and competitions outside the city and transport a gun between two homes.

As a general rule, there must be a live dispute between two parties for a federal lawsuit to continue. So if the plaintiffs seek the right to do X, and the defendant is now legally required to allow the plaintiffs to do X, the case is considered “moot” and it must be dismissed.

The Supreme Court’s opinion in New York State Rifle, however, does not go quite so far as to dismiss the case in its entirety. “Our ordinary practice in disposing of a case that has become moot on appeal is to vacate the judgment with directions to dismiss,” the Court explains. “However, in instances where the mootness is attributable to a change in the legal framework governing the case, and where the plaintiff may have some residual claim under the new framework that was understandably not asserted previously, our practice is to vacate the judgment and remand for further proceedings in which the parties may, if necessary, amend their pleadings or develop the record more fully.”

The upshot is that the case will go back down to the lower court, which will examine some residual issues that the Supreme Court did not resolve, such as whether the plaintiffs “may not be allowed to stop for coffee, gas, food, or restroom breaks on the way to their second homes or shooting ranges outside of the city.” But, as a practical matter, the impact of the Court’s New York State Rifle decision is that it likely delays, until at least next year, the Supreme Court’s ability to hand down any major pronouncements regarding the Second Amendment.

The Supreme Court has not had much to say about the Second Amendment since District of Columbia v. Heller (2008), its first decision holding that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to bear arms. Though Justice Anthony Kennedy joined the Supreme Court’s 5-4 majority in Heller, he also insisted upon “some important changes” to that opinion, which placed some significant limits on gun rights.

But Kennedy is no longer on the Supreme Court, and his replacement, Justice Brett Kavanaugh, has signaled that he would read the Second Amendment much more expansively than Kennedy.

It is likely, in other words, that gun rights groups can still look forward to a major victory. It just won’t happen today.

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