Fearing Supreme Court Loss, New York Tries to Make Gun Case Vanish

WASHINGTON — A couple of weeks ago, the New York Police Department held an unusual public hearing. Its purpose was to make a Supreme Court case disappear.

In January, the court agreed to hear a Second Amendment challenge to a New York City gun regulation. The city, fearing a loss that would endanger gun control laws across the nation, responded by moving to change the regulation. The idea was to make the case moot.

The move required seeking comments from the public, in writing and at the hearing. Gun rights advocates were not happy.

“This law should not be changed,” Hallet Bruestle wrote in a comment submitted before the hearing. “Not because it is a good law; it is blatantly unconstitutional. No, it should not be changed since this is a clear tactic to try to moot the Scotus case that is specifically looking into this law.”

David Enlow made a similar point. “This is a very transparent attempt,” he wrote, “to move the goal post in the recent Supreme Court case.”

The regulation allows residents with so-called premises licenses to take their guns to one of seven shooting ranges in the city. But it prohibits them from taking their guns to second homes and shooting ranges outside the city, even when the guns are unloaded and locked in containers separate from ammunition.

The city’s proposed changes, likely to take effect in a month or so, would remove those restrictions. Whether they would also end the case is another matter.

Until the Supreme Court agreed to hear the dispute, the city had defended the regulation vigorously and successfully, winning in two lower courts. In inviting public comments on the proposed changes, the Police Department said it continued to believe the regulation “furthers an important public-safety interest.”

Still, the city seems determined to give the plaintiffs — three city residents and the New York State Rifle and Pistol Association — everything they had sued for. The plaintiffs, in turn, do not seem to want to take yes for an answer.

There is a precedent for the city’s strategy, from a surprising source. The National Rifle Association tried a similar tactic in connection with the 2008 Supreme Court case that ended up revolutionizing Second Amendment law, District of Columbia v. Heller.

The N.R.A. was initially skittish about the case, which was brought by a scrappy group of libertarian lawyers led by Robert A. Levy.

“The N.R.A.’s interference in this process set us back and almost killed the case,” Mr. Levy said in 2007. “It was a very acrimonious relationship.”

As Mr. Levy and his colleagues were persuading a federal appeals court to strike down part of Washington’s tough gun control law, the N.R.A. tried to short-circuit the case.

“The N.R.A.’s next step was to renew its lobbying effort in Congress to repeal the D.C. gun ban,” Mr. Levy wrote in 2008 in a Federalist Society publication. “Ordinarily that would have been a good thing, but not this time.”

“Repealing D.C.’s ban would have rendered the Heller litigation moot,” he wrote. “After all, no one can challenge a law that no longer exists.”

Only an intensive countereffort kept the case alive, Mr. Levy wrote.

“After expending considerable time and energy in the halls of Congress, we were able, with help, to frustrate congressional consideration of the N.R.A.-sponsored bill,” he wrote.

The N.R.A. came around in the end. In the Supreme Court, it supported the suit, working closely with the lawyers who had brought it.

The court’s decision in the Heller case established an individual right to own guns, imperiling gun control laws around the nation. But aside from one follow-up case in 2010, the court has not elaborated on the scope of the right.

With the departure of Justice Anthony M. Kennedy and the arrival of Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, the court seems ready to start. It agreed to hear the New York case, New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. City of New York, No. 18-280, just months after Justice Kavanaugh joined the court. Unless the case is dismissed, it will be argued in the fall.

The question of whether the changes to the city’s gun regulation will make the case moot is a hard one. The city lost an initial skirmish at the court last month when the justices turned down its request to suspend the filing of briefs while changes to the regulation were considered.

The plaintiffs opposed that request. “To state the obvious, a proposed amendment is not law,” they wrote.

The changes to the regulations will happen soon enough, though, and the Supreme Court will then have to consider whether there is anything left to decide.

The court has said the “voluntary cessation” of government policies does not make cases moot if the government remains free to reinstate them after the cases are dismissed. But formal changes in laws may be a different matter.

To hear the plaintiffs tell it, the court should not reward cynical gamesmanship.

“The proposed rule making,” they wrote, “appears to be the product not of a change of heart, but rather of a carefully calculated effort to frustrate this court’s review.”

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