Hochul Pledges New Legislation After ‘Shocking’ Court Decision on Guns
New York’s leaders pledged Thursday to pass legislation broadly restricting the carrying of handguns as soon as possible and blasted the United States Supreme Court for striking down a previous measure in a decision that will affect five other states and tens of millions of Americans.
Gov. Kathy Hochul said she would call a special legislative session as soon as July and outlined proposals that could let the state maintain some of the nation’s most restrictive gun laws. Democratic leaders in the Legislature promised to work with the governor.
Ms. Hochul was visibly angry at a Manhattan news conference where she was preparing to sign a school safety measure named for a teenager killed in the 2018 mass shooting in Parkland, Fla. She called the Supreme Court’s decision “shocking, absolutely shocking” and said it would make New Yorkers less safe.
“We’re already dealing with a major gun violence crisis,” Ms. Hochul said. “We don’t need to add more fuel to this fire.”
Her comments came minutes after the publication of the Supreme Court decision, written by Justice Clarence Thomas, that declared unconstitutional a century-old law that gives officials in New York sweeping authority to decide who can carry weapons. California, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts and New Jersey, which have similar laws, will also be affected by the decision.
Justice Thomas made it clear that any law restricting the carrying of guns in New York City as a whole would be unacceptable to the court.
“Put simply,” he wrote, “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 ruling did not affect states with “shall issue” laws. Those measures give less discretion to local officials to decide who can carry guns, but can still place significant restrictions on applicants. The distinction, made clear in a concurring opinion by Justice Brett Kavanaugh, may allow states where restrictions have broad support to redraw new rules.
In New York, Ms. Hochul convened a meeting with the mayors of New York’s six largest cities to discuss potential legislation. She said leaders were devising changes to laws that govern permitting, potentially requiring additional training. They also plan to identify so-called sensitive locations where guns would not be allowed. Ms. Hochul declined to expand on possible locations while lawmakers debate, but said she believed that subways should be among them.
The state’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority is already drafting rules to keep weapons off subways, trains and buses, Paige Graves, its general counsel, said in a statement.
Ms. Hochul added that she hoped to establish a system in which handguns would be barred in private businesses, unless proprietors formally allowed them.
Joseph Blocher, a Second Amendment expert at Duke University School of Law in North Carolina, said that some of those proposals could meet the specifications that the Supreme Court set in its ruling, but cautioned that hard questions would inevitably arise.
For example, he explained, officials might bar guns within 100 feet of a school or a government building, and such buffer zones could make a substantial part of a city off limits. But he said that whether those kinds of restrictions would pass muster with the courts was an open question.
New York’s law is not yet off the books. The case now goes back to a lower court — the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit — which is expected to send it in turn to Federal District Court in New York, said Adam Winkler, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who specializes in constitutional law and gun policy.
That court is likely to give New York a grace period, instead of striking the law down immediately, Mr. Winkler said.
“We have seen this happen in the past where the courts have given lawmakers some time so they can adopt a law,” he said. In this case, he added the alternative would be to “have everyone carry guns on the streets of New York.”
New York officials rushed to explain that the decision will not take effect immediately.
“Nothing changes today,” Mayor Eric Adams said in a City Hall news conference. He called the ruling “appalling” and said it could undermine efforts to increase safety. Gun trafficking from other states, much of it on the so-called Iron Pipeline of I-95, might no longer be necessary, he said.
“The Iron Pipeline is going to be the Van Wyck,” the mayor said, referring to the expressway that runs through Queens. “The guns are going to be purchased here.”
The city’s police commissioner, Keechant Sewell, warned that as long as the current law remains on the books, “If you carry a gun illegally in New York City, you will be arrested.”
New York has an array of regulations unaffected by the court’s decision. The SAFE Act, passed in 2013, bans assault-style weapons with military features, requires background checks for nearly all sales and transfers of ammunition and firearms and prohibits people convicted of certain offenses from possessing guns. A so-called red-flag law, enacted in 2019, allows officials to seek orders taking firearms away from people who they believe will engage in harmful conduct.
Some New Yorkers celebrated the court’s decision. Lee Zeldin and Andrew Giuliani, Republican candidates for governor, both applauded the ruling.
Mr. Zeldin, a congressman and the presumptive favorite for the nomination, called the decision a “defense of the constitutional rights of law-abiding New Yorkers who have been under attack for far too long.”
And Andrew Chernoff, the owner of Coliseum Gun Traders in Uniondale, Long Island, said it was “more than just a pro-gun decision.”
“It has a bigger message — and the bigger message is that you can’t twist and turn the Constitution to your liking,” said Mr. Chernoff, who has been in business since 1979.
Several public defender organizations in New York City also supported the ruling, saying that the law had previously been use to discriminate against minority clients.
“Over 90 percent of the people prosecuted for unlicensed gun possession in New York City are Black and brown,” a coalition of public defender groups said in a statement. “These are the people impacted by New York’s discriminatory gun licensing scheme, which has fueled the criminalization and incarceration of young New Yorkers of color.”
Their statement called on the Legislature to design gun regulations that would address violence without perpetuating discrimination.
But at a news conference across the street from City Hall, members of the legislature’s Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic & Asian Legislative Caucus said the decision will put their constituents and communities in danger.
“If, in fact, anyone and everyone can get a license to get a gun and ride on the subway, and in our parks, and in our movie theaters and at our concerts, we’re going to be in big trouble,” said Sen. Robert Jackson.
New York officials had already been struggling to combat gun crime. Between 2019 and 2021, the number of shootings resulting in injuries doubled in New York City. And the overall rate of shootings in 20 other areas, including Albany, Buffalo and Rochester rose sharply during that period, according to city and state data.
While criminologists disagree about what propels the rise in violence, many point to disruptions caused by the pandemic and the easy flow of guns to New York from states with looser restrictions.
Studies have shown that right-to-carry laws are associated with higher rates of violent crime. One study from the National Bureau of Economic Research in 2017 found that such laws were associated with as much as 15 percent “higher aggregate violent crime rates.”
Zellnor Myrie, a Democratic state senator from Brooklyn who is one of the Legislature’s leading voices on gun violence, said the court’s decision came as he attended an elementary school graduation across from the 36th Street subway station in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, where 10 people were shot and dozens injured when a gunman opened fire aboard a train in April.
“I just think about the children I just saw graduate, who have to live in city, state or a country where the government chooses guns over their lives,” he said.
Dana Rubinstein, Hurubie Meko and Chelsia Rose Marcius contributed reporting.