WASHINGTON — Chief Justice John Roberts appeared Monday to be the key vote in whether the Supreme Court considers expanding gun rights or sidesteps its first case on the issue in nearly 10 years.
The court’s dismissal of the case would be a disappointment to gun-rights advocates and a huge relief to gun-control groups. Both sides thought a conservative Supreme Court majority fortified by two appointees of President Donald Trump, Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, might use the case to expand on landmark decisions from a decade ago that established a right to keep a gun at home for self-defense.
The arguments dealt with a dispute over New York City restrictions on taking licensed, locked and unloaded guns outside the city limits. New York has dropped its transport ban, but only after the high court decided in January to hear the case.
The justices spent most of the hour trying to determine whether anything is left of the case brought by the National Rifle Association’s New York affiliate and three city residents, after the change in New York law.
Roberts sought assurances in a handful of questions to the city’s lawyer that New York police would not refuse to issue gun licenses to people who have may have violated the old law.
“Would the fact of a violation of the prior law be used against them?” Roberts asked Richard Dearing, the lawyer representing the city.
“It will not. It absolutely will not,” Dearing replied, as part of his argument urging the justices to get rid of the case.
The four liberal justices made clear they are likely to vote for dismissal. “So what’s left of this case? Petitioners have gotten all the relief they sought,” said Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, on the bench for the first time since a hospital stay.
Paul Clement, representing the gun owners, said his clients are entitled to an order from a federal court, not just the representations of the city’s lawyer. In one example, Clement said it is unclear whether a gun owner headed to a shooting range could stop for coffee or a bathroom break without breaking the law.
His argument appeared to win favor with at least two justices, Samuel Alito and Gorsuch. When Dearing said coffee and rest stops are permissible, they asked about whether a gun owner would be at risk by stopping at his mother’s house.
Dearing replied he was less sure about other kinds of stops, but that people could challenge such a restriction in a new case.
Justice Clarence Thomas, who has lamented the court’s reluctance to take on gun cases, asked no questions, as is his custom. Kavanaugh also was silent throughout the arguments, but his record in guns cases includes a dissent when his federal appeals court upheld D.C.’s ban on semi-automatic rifles.