‘Frightful in its scope’: New York lawmakers scramble to counteract SCOTUS gun ruling

·7 min read
Mary Altaffer/AP Photo

NEW YORK — Lawmakers laid out broad aims Thursday to mitigate a Supreme Court ruling striking down a strict New York gun law, including plans to tighten the firearm-permitting process, empower private businesses to ban weapons, and deem swaths of the state gun-free zones.

Minutes after the release of the opinion — which restricted how local governments can deny permits to carry concealed firearms in public — Gov. Kathy Hochul vowed to call state lawmakers back into session, and New York City Council announced it would pass a resolution seeking Albany’s help.

“This decision isn’t just reckless. It’s reprehensible. It’s not what New Yorkers want,” Hochul said at a news conference in her Manhattan office shortly after the decision was handed down, also calling the ruling “frightful in its scope."

“We do not need people entering our subways, our restaurants, our movie theaters with concealed weapons,” she said.

Under the struck-down law, New Yorkers seeking to carry a handgun outside the home had to show “proper cause” for why they needed the weapon, a condition that afforded local officials broad discretion to deny permits. But the high court ruled that condition violates the Second Amendment.

Other classes of gun permits do not automatically become concealed-carry permits because of the ruling — and anyone seeking to carry a concealed gun would still have to obtain a specific permit, according to Hochul.

“Nothing changes today. We want to be clear on that,” Mayor Eric Adams said at a City Hall news conference, stressing that the NYPD will still arrest anyone caught carrying a gun illegally.

“This decision has made every single one of us less safe from gun violence,” added Adams, who has made combating gun violence the centerpiece of his mayoralty. “There is no place in the nation that is going to be impacted — based on this decision — more than New York City.”

According to a Siena College Research Institute poll released this month, 79 percent of New Yorkers favored upholding the law, while 15 percent wanted it overturned and 6 percent had no opinion.

Now New York will have to devise new rules on who can obtain a permit, without requiring applicants to show a special justification. And officials will seek to make those requirements as tight as possible. For instance, Hochul said the state may require applicants to undergo firearms training to obtain a concealed-carry permit — something currently required only in certain counties.

New York City has its own gun-permitting process. The Supreme Court decision sent the case back to the lower courts, and NYPD Commissioner Keechant Sewell said the department will wait for the case to play out before implementing a new permitting process.

Hochul, meanwhile, said she also wants to “create a system where the default position is for a private business that a concealed carry is not allowed unless they affirmatively offer the right to someone to come in with a concealed carry."

The court recognized states’ ability to ban guns in so-called “sensitive locations,” such as schools and government buildings, where there is a reasonable expectation of protection by police.

New York City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams, who is not related to the mayor, said Thursday the body would be crafting a resolution urging the state to designate a host of institutions including transit hubs, hospitals, libraries, parks and schools as sensitive areas.

The city could effectively create a blanket ban on carrying guns within its boundaries by designating buffer zones of potentially 1,000 feet around those gun-free areas, according to the speaker.

“That’s the hope,” she said.

Hochul said the city subways are another area she wants designated. And the MTA has “begun drafting appropriate rules to keep dangerous weapons out of our subways, buses and commuter trains,” according to MTA General Counsel Paige Graves.

"If the federal government will not have sweeping laws to protect us, then our states and our governors have a moral responsibility to do what we can and have laws that protect our citizens,” Hochul said, condemning the “insanity of the gun culture that has now possessed everyone, all the way up even to the Supreme Court."

The notion could face legal challenges, however. The high court’s opinion specifically rejected the state’s argument that large portions of New York City qualify as sensitive places.

"Put simply, there is no historical basis for New York to effectively declare the island of Manhattan a 'sensitive place' simply because it is crowded and protected generally by the New York City Police Department,” the opinion read.

Whether subways and other large gathering areas qualify is unsettled territory.

"What about subways, nightclubs, movie theaters, and sports stadiums? The Court does not say,” Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in a dissenting opinion.

Any attempt to designate broad areas — like neighborhoods or the city’s subway system — as sensitive places would almost certainly garner a legal challenge, according to Stephen Halbrook, a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a research organization that filed an amicus brief to the Supreme Court supporting the New York law’s repeal. He pointed to court rulings in Illinois and Delaware that struck down gun restrictions in parks, for example.

“There’s going to be a lot of fallout from this case,” he said. “We’ll see where it all settles, but I’m sure there’s going to be litigation.”

Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg said he was bracing for a potential flood of lawsuits challenging existing gun cases due to the ruling, which he would try to fend off.

“New York still has some of the toughest gun laws in the country on the books, and we will continue to use these statutes to hold accountable those who commit gun violence,” he said.

The Legal Aid Society, which represents criminal defendants, also urged lawmakers not to enact another strict licensing regime.

“This decision may be an affirmative step toward ending arbitrary licensing standards that have inhibited lawful Black and Brown gun ownership in New York,” the group said in a statement. “As lawmakers consider next steps in response to this decision, let us be abundantly clear: it would amount to a historic disservice to both public safety and the best interests of the New Yorkers for Albany to reproduce a regulatory scheme that perpetuates the same disparate outcomes yielded under the previous law or to further criminalize gun ownership.”

New York Republicans hailed the ruling.

“Today, the United States Supreme Court ruled in defense of the Constitutional rights of law-abiding New Yorkers who have been under attack for far too long,” said Rep. Lee Zeldin, who is running against Hochul for governor.

He noted her past opposition to gun control measures and said she “better not make her next move on this yet another assault on law-abiding New Yorkers.”

The high court’s ruling was the second time this week that the court influenced gun policy in New York.

On Tuesday, the court ruled in a 7-2 decision that attempted Hobbs Act crimes — robberies or extortions that include an actual or threatened use of violence and impede interstate commerce in some way — were not “crimes of violence.”

That ruling means federal prosecutors can’t stack on additional mandatory minimums, typically ranging from five to 10 years, for individuals convicted in attempted Hobbs Act robberies that involved firearms.

Federal prosecutors have used the Hobbs Act to bring gun cases they otherwise might not, since a 2018 directive by then U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

The ruling won’t likely deter such cases, but it may make it harder for prosecutors to obtain plea agreements without the sentencing enhancement looming over defendants, according to Daniel Harawa, a professor of law at Washington University in St. Louis.

The U.S. Attorneys Offices for the Southern and Eastern Districts of New York did not respond to a request for comment on the Hobbs ruling.

But the Department of Justice disagreed Thursday with the court’s concealed carry ruling.

“The Department of Justice remains committed to saving innocent lives by enforcing and defending federal firearms laws, partnering with state, local and tribal authorities and using all legally available tools to tackle the epidemic of gun violence plaguing our communities,” Main Justice said in a statement.

Additional reporting by Danielle Muoio Dunn.