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If Supreme Court Allows More Guns on NYC Streets, Will Anywhere Be Safe?

City could have power to designate “sensitive areas” where firearms would be forbidden. But no one’s saying where.

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Tourists packed into Times Square on a sunny day, June 8, 2022.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

New York City is bracing for the possibility that the number of individuals walking the streets with legally permitted handguns will greatly expand should the U.S. Supreme Court rule that the state’s restrictive carry permit laws are unconstitutional.

The question is where will the holders with carry permits be allowed to carry their guns, and will the city be able to set up so-called “sensitive places” where guns could still be strictly prohibited?

Will legally permitted guns be allowed on the subway? In Broadway theaters? At Knicks or Nets games? In hospital waiting rooms or libraries or on college campuses like New York University or Columbia? What about Central Park?

There’s good reason to believe the issue of “sensitive places” will surface in the high court’s ruling, which is expected to come down any day. During oral arguments last fall, several justices raised this issue, particularly related to how such restrictive areas might play out in crowded New York City locations — from NYU’s urban campus to Times Square.

“We don’t know how the court will determine what the scope of a sensitive place is,” said Rebecca Fischer, executive director of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence. “But it’s something that we need to look out for in terms of what this means for public safety. Because with child care and polling places and Times Square and our subways, we need to take into account that there are more people walking around with guns and we are going to see an uptick in shootings.”

The lawsuit, New York Rifle and Pistol Association vs. Bruen, was brought by two upstate gun owners who argue that New York’s system of awarding permits to carry handguns in public is so restrictive it violates the Second Amendment’s “right to keep and bear arms” provision.

New York is one of only seven states that impose restrictions on obtaining handgun carry permits. Local authorities “may” — not “must” — approve a permit and only for New York residents 21 and over who are “of good moral character” and “have a legally recognized reason for wanting to possess or carry a firearm.”

That’s been interpreted to include individuals who can prove they have a “proper cause” that requires them to carry a handgun, such as working as a licensed security guard, or that they have evidence that shows they face a real threat. Data cited by the state in its brief arguing the case indicate there were around 54,000 carry permits issued statewide (including in New York City) in 2018 and 2019.

Off Limits

During arguments Nov. 3, New York City took center stage in the discussion as several justices raised what appeared to be out-of-towner questions about the city and whether gun-free “sensitive places” should be imposed if New York’s laws on carry permits are tossed out.

Chief Justice John Roberts asked whether states could declare university campuses gun-free, and the plaintiffs’ attorney said they likely could. Justice Elena Kagan then questioned how one could enforce such a restriction at a campus like New York University (NYU), which is more or less integrated into the surrounding neighborhood.

“You know, anybody can walk around the NYU campus,” she said.

A couple enjoyed Washington Square Park, near New York University in Greenwich Village.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Justice Amy Coney Barrett brought up Times Square as a possible gun-free zone, but only on a specific well-known date: “Can’t we just say Times Square on New Year’s Eve is a sensitive place because now we’ve seen, you know, people are on top of each other?”

In response, New York Solicitor General Barbara Underwood noted that the overcrowded nature of Times Square is hardly limited to New Year’s Eve.

“When commerce is in full swing, Times Square almost every night is shoulder to shoulder people,” she said.

Justice Stephen Breyer wondered whether certain sporting events in the city might need to qualify as “sensitive places” given the potential for the “good moral character” of some legal gun evaporating after a few drinks at a heated game.

“You think that in New York City people should have considerable freedom to carry concealed weapons. I think that people of good moral character who start drinking a lot and who may be there for a football game or — or some kind of soccer game — can get pretty angry at each other. And if they each have a concealed weapon, who knows?” 

And Underwood suggested keeping “sensitive places” free of guns could be complicated and even impossible.

“You end up having a very big difficulty in specifying what all the places are that have the characteristics that should make them sensitive,” she said. “It has an attractive quality to it, but in implementation, I think it would be unsuccessful.”

Should the court toss out the carry permit law as written, depending on the language of the ruling the state and city could then draft laws spelling out the parameters of sensitive places.

Jerold Levine, an attorney specializing in gun license cases and a Second Amendment rights advocate, predicted New York state officials “are going to look at the ruling and say, ‘Okay, how much room do we have here to still regulate?’” and “look for any ways that they can still restrict as much as possible within the meaning of that ruling.”

And the New York Civil Liberties Union argued in a friend-of-the-court brief supplementing the state’s argument that there is a free speech issue in play as well where speakers at protests could be intimidated to refrain from making controversial statements due to the threat of being shot.

“States may reasonably determine that allowing the carrying of guns in the public sphere risks turning agitated speech into combustible disorder and even lethal violence,” the NYCLU argued. “States have every reason to believe that the open or

concealed carrying of guns will chill the exercise of First Amendment rights by threatening the eruption of violence.”

‘It’s Just a Bad Idea’

So far, top elected officials from Gov. Kathy Hochul to Mayor Eric Adams have made clear they’re concerned about the potential fallout of a flood of legal weapons in the city but are awaiting the court’s actual ruling before weighing in on what they intend to do about it. Hochul recently said the state was “prepared” but wouldn’t elaborate.

Gov. Kathy Hochul speaks in the northern Bronx about signing bills meant to reduce gun violence, June 6, 2022.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Multiple institutions contacted by THE CITY — including the Central Park Conservancy, Madison Square Garden, Barclays Center, NYU, Columbia University, the New York City Public Library and the city’s Health + Hospitals system — all either did not respond or declined to say whether they would seek to be declared a “sensitive place.”

Metropolitan Transportation Authority spokesperson Eugene Resnick replied, “We are not commenting on a decision that is pending.”

Speaking with THE CITY Wednesday, John Miller, the NYPD’s deputy commissioner for counter-terrorism and public affairs, declined to discuss the department’s plans until they see the specific language of the court’s ruling.

But he added, “There’s nobody in New York City who thinks adding more guns to the mix in our streets  is going to be helpful. It’s going to increase the number of shootings, the potential for theft of legally owned guns, children finding guns and injuring themselves or others, suicides in homes. It’s just a bad idea.”

Mayor Eric Adams inspected seized illegal guns at NYPD headquarters, May 25, 2022.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The Supreme Court’s ruling is set to arrive shortly after two recent shooting incidents in the subways. And while the number of shootings has dropped by nearly 30% in the last month and the NYPD has taken 3,000 guns off the streets, the number of shootings has jumped by 50% since the start of the pandemic, as measured through the first five months of each year.

On Monday Mayor Adams noted the unfortunate timing of all this, stating that the possibility of the court finding New York’s carry permit unconstitutional “keeps me up at night,” adding, “If this right-to-carry goes through the Supreme Court and becomes the law of the land, can you imagine being on the 4 train with someone having a 9 millimeter exposed? Everyone on the train is carrying? This is not the wild, wild West.”

No matter how the court rules, change will not come fast. Levine predicts any alterations to existing law made by New York will likely trigger more litigation, and the question of carry permits will remain up in the air.

“It’s a political game in the sense that, like, you moved your chess piece here, I’m gonna move my piece over there, you moved your bishop here, I’m gonna move my queen over there. That’s how this gets done,” he said. “So nothing, nothing ever gets resolved. Everybody’s always looking at the possibility that there’s going to be a decision by a court that solves the whole thing. It never solves the whole thing. The debate continues to go on back and forth, and back and forth.”

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