WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday avoided issuing a landmark Second Amendment ruling in a closely watched gun rights case, but set the stage for future legal battles.
A divided court ruled that a challenge to New York City gun restrictions was moot because the city had later changed its regulations.
The case had been billed as potentially the biggest gun rights lawsuit in a decade, and gun violence prevention advocates feared a broad ruling could spell doom for some local gun restrictions. But the court’s decision to toss out the case on procedural grounds allowed the justices to avoid the thornier legal issues over the scope of the Second Amendment — at least for now.
The dispute centers on a New York City regulation banning the transport of licensed, locked, and unloaded handguns to a home or shooting range outside city limits. Gun owners sued over the rule, but in the face of legal challenges, the city changed its regulations to remove the travel restrictions.
Several justices signaled during oral arguments in December that they’d reject the challenge on procedural grounds. “What’s left of the case?” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg asked at the time.
In the per curiam, or unsigned, opinion issued Monday, the justices sent the case back to lower courts to determine whether the gun owners who brought the lawsuit could seek damages in relation to New York’s old regulation.
Three conservative justices — Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas — dissented, saying their colleagues were incorrectly dismissing the case as moot.
Justice Brett Kavanaugh sided with the majority in agreeing that the case was moot. But notably, he penned his own dissent stating that he agreed with Alito’s concern “that some federal and state courts may not be properly applying” a 2008 Supreme Court opinion in which “we held that the Second Amendment protects the right of ordinary Americans to keep and bear arms.”
Kavanaugh — a conservative justice whose confirmation was seen as a significant shift on the court toward limiting gun regulations — encouraged the court to promptly revisit the application of that major Second Amendment ruling.
“The Court should address that issue soon, perhaps in one of the several Second Amendment cases with petitions for certiorari now pending before the Court,” he wrote.
Kavanaugh’s short statement was viewed by some of his critics as a sign that future rulings by the court’s conservative majority could imperil other gun violence prevention measures.
“Brett Kavanaugh just officially put everyone on notice that no gun safety measures are safe now that he is on the Supreme Court,” said Christopher Kang, chief counsel of the progressive group Demand Justice.