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What SCOTUS's Guns Ruling Means for New York

You don’t need a law degree to notice the exasperation written into the various justices’ opinions in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association, Inc., et al. v. Bruen, the big gun case that the Supreme Court decided on Thursday. In a 6–3 decision, the Court ruled that a specific New York State gun-control law is unconstitutional. But the implications of the case, as Stephen Breyer writes, in a dissent signed by the Court’s three liberal justices, are much broader. “The question before us concerns the extent to which the Second Amendment prevents democratically elected officials from enacting laws to address the serious problem of gun violence,” Breyer writes. “And yet the Court today purports to answer that question without discussing the nature or severity of that problem.” Breyer then rattles off some facts and figures. In the United States, there are more guns than there are people. Each year, gun-related incidents send about eighty-five thousand people to emergency rooms with nonfatal injuries; each year, tens of thousands of people are killed by guns. And, while mass shootings have dominated the news, Breyer also points out an aspect of the gun-violence crisis that is often overlooked: suicide. In 2015, one per cent of gun deaths in America were accidents, thirty-seven per cent were homicides, and the rest—the majority—were suicides.

“What is the relevance of statistics about the use of guns to commit suicide?” Samuel Alito, one of the six conservative justices who signed the majority opinion, writes in his concurrence. As a result of the law in question, it is harder in New York to get a license to carry handguns outside the home than it is in most states. “Does the dissent think that a lot of people who possess guns in their homes will be stopped or deterred from shooting themselves if they cannot lawfully take them outside?” Alito asks, rhetorically.

In short, yes. Something like this appears to have happened in New York State. In 2019, Briggs Depew and Isaac D. Swensen, researchers at Utah State University and Montana State University, published a study examining the effects of the Sullivan Act, a hundred-and-eleven-year-old New York law that established the state’s gun-permitting rules. Although the study found that the act “had no clear effects on homicide or suicide rates,” there was “clear evidence” that it had led to a large decrease in gun-related suicide rates. By comparing mortality rates in New York with rates in other states before and after the implementation of the Sullivan Act, Depew and Swensen found that gun suicides in New York fell by thirty-two to forty-eight per cent. Several high-profile studies in recent years have shown strong correlations between suicide and gun-ownership rates. Chris Murphy, the Connecticut senator who has been one of Congress’s strongest voices for gun control since the Sandy Hook shooting, in 2012, has argued that ending the country’s suicide crisis and passing gun-control laws are one and the same thing.

When the Sullivan Act was passed, in 1911, it was in the wake of a murder-suicide that shook New York City. In January of that year, a novelist named David Graham Phillips was shot outside the Princeton Club by Fitzhugh Coyle Goldsborough, a violinist in the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, who believed that Phillips had taken some digs at his family in one of his novels. After shooting Phillips, who died the next morning, Goldsborough turned the gun on himself. Within months, Big Tim Sullivan, a Tammany Hall boss and state senator, pushed through a measure that would soon become a model for gun-control legislation around the country.

New York State Rifle & Pistol Association, Inc., et al. v. Bruen was brought on behalf of Robert Nash and Brandon Koch, two men in Rensselaer County, near Albany, who objected to a later amendment to the Sullivan Act that allows local officials a degree of discretion in deciding who qualifies for a permit to carry a concealed weapon in public. Both men had applied for concealed-carry licenses and been denied, because local officials determined that neither had demonstrated “proper cause” for needing the license for self-defense. The conservative justices who signed the majority opinion, written by Clarence Thomas, didn’t disagree with the local officials’ determinations. “Nash did not claim any unique danger to his personal safety,” Thomas writes. “Koch was in the same position as Nash.” But the conservative majority still ruled in their favor, over the interests that the state said it had in regulating gun ownership.

Read entire article at The New Yorker