AILSA CHANG, HOST:
The U.S. Supreme Court has once again punted on the question of gun rights. Today it dismissed a challenge to New York City's strict gun regulations on transporting licensed guns outside the home. Joining us now to explain this is NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.
NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Hi there, Ailsa.
CHANG: So first, remind us what this case was all about.
TOTENBERG: New York City, in the name of public safety, allows people to have a permit for guns in their homes. But those regulations originally barred those gun owners from transporting their guns anywhere except shooting ranges within the city. Gun groups challenged that regulation and lost in the lower courts. But after the Supreme Court agreed to review the case, New York changed its laws to allow gun owners to transport their guns outside the city to shooting ranges, to competitions and to second homes. That's exactly what the challengers originally asked for. So today the Supreme Court, by a 6 to 3 vote, dismissed the case as moot. In short, it no longer presents a live controversy. The opinion was unsigned but joined by Chief Justice John Roberts, the court's four liberals and Trump appointee Brett Kavanaugh. The dissenters, conservative Justices Alito, Thomas and Gorsuch, said the court should've decided the case and decided it for the gun owners.
CHANG: OK, so the court didn't actually rule on this particular case. But tell us why that is still important enough to talk about here.
TOTENBERG: Partially because advocates for gun regulation have been gaining ground in state legislatures. Here, for instance, is Eric Tirschwell, managing director of Everytown Against Gun Violence (ph), speaking today.
ERIC TIRSCHWELL: The reality is that the gun safety movement is winning in statehouses and at the ballot box, so the NRA is turning to the court to try to change the tide.
TOTENBERG: Today's decision may have been a reprieve for gun safety advocates. But recall that this was the first gun case the court has heard in 10 years. Back in 2008 and 2010, the court ruled in a landmark set of cases that the Second Amendment right to bear arms is an individual right, not a right associated with a militia, as the court had previously implied. It was a very big deal, a huge victory for the NRA and other gun rights organizations.
TOTENBERG: But for 10 years after that, the court did not agree to hear any significant gun case.
CHANG: And tell us why that is.
TOTENBERG: Well, the previous big gun decisions were by 5 to 4 votes with Justice Anthony Kennedy casting the fifth and decisive vote and insisting, I'm told, on limiting language that would have upheld some, maybe even most, gun regulations. So the surmise is that with neither side of the court sure how Kennedy would vote on most regulations, neither side wanted to risk an adverse ruling. But Kennedy, of course, retired in 2018 to be replaced by Justice Kavanaugh. And Kavanaugh has a much more gun-friendly record than Kennedy did. Indeed, as a lower court judge, he wrote expansively about gun rights, in one case declaring that in his view, any ban on assault weapons or any ban on large ammunition magazines was unconstitutional because such bans did not exist at the time the Constitution was written.
CHANG: So given that, how did Justice Kavanaugh vote today?
TOTENBERG: He did vote to moot the case, but he wrote separately to say that his vote was on procedural grounds. And he went on to add that he agreed with the dissenters that the lower courts may be applying the court's earlier rulings in a way that's far too deferential to laws that restrict gun rights. And he said that the court should hear some of these cases. And there are a bunch of them pending in the wings right now. Bottom line here is that when it comes to gun control, there looks to be four pretty solid votes against a lot of measures, some of them enacted in recent years after mass shootings. And the question is where Chief Justice Roberts, the fifth vote, will go.
CHANG: That is NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.
Thank you, Nina.
TOTENBERG: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.