Supreme Court Sets Up Term That Could Produce Precedent-Setting Cases on Gun Rights

While the court does not yet have Second Amendment issues pending for its next term, it could quickly bring back cases that were remanded to the courts below.

AP/J. Scott Applewhite, file
The Supreme Court at Washington, October 10, 2017. AP/J. Scott Applewhite, file

Now that the more high-profile decisions on presidential immunity and Chevron deference are done, the Supreme Court may be setting itself up for a precedent-making term in respect of gun rights. More than two years after the justices landmark decision on the Second Amendment, the Nine have work to do in clarifying certain aspects. 

At the end of their latest term, the justices decided to send a number of gun rights cases back to lower courts. The matters included restrictions on criminals owning guns and a state law in New York that deals with licensing requirements and restrictions on where firearms can be carried.

Yet it’s by no means clear that the court will continue the movement in recent years toward greater Second Amendment rights. The court, in a surprising move for some gun rights advocates, refused to even hear arguments in a lawsuit challenging Illinois’s ban on assault rifles and high-capacity magazines. 

All of these cases arose from challenges brought after the court’s 2022 landmark decision in New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. Bruen. That struck down a century-old state firearms regulation requiring that to obtain a firearm license a citizen had to show a compelling need.

Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the majority, said that any and all firearms regulations must be “consistent with the Second Amendment’s text and historical understanding.” That kicked off two years of confusion in the lower courts, as judges openly stated they did not know what historical precedent should be used in evaluating firearms regulation.

One judge, Carlton Reeves of Mississippi, said during a case that he may have to appoint a historian for the trial in order to help evaluate the historical methods of firearms regulation. Then, this last term, the justices offered some clarity on what that “historical understanding” test means. They sent several cases back to lower courts in light of that decision.

On June 21, the court handed down its decision in United States v. Rahimi, a gun rights case from Texas. Zackey Rahimi had been placed under a domestic violence protective order by a local court because he was allegedly abusive to his then-girlfriend. Mr. Rahimi, a gun owner, was then legally required to relinquish all ownership and forgo the purchase of firearms while he was under the restraining order.

Mr. Rahimi challenged that law under the Bruen precedent, saying that barring those under domestic violence restraining orders from owning weapons is not consistent with America’s history. The court found in an eight to one decision that Mr. Rahimi did not have the constitutional right to have any firearms, even under Bruen.

“When an individual poses a clear threat of violence to another, the threatening individual may be disarmed,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote. Justice Thomas, the lone dissenter, reckoned that the government failed to prove a historical analogue to barring domestic abusers from owning firearms. Following that decision, the court ruled that other Second Amendment cases pending before the justices be sent to lower courts for reconsideration under the Rahimi precedent. 

The first set of cases the justices refused to so far hear are challenging the federal statute that bars those with felony convictions from owning firearms. The combined cases of felons who are currently barred from possessing weapons are being sent back to the lower courts to be reviewed. 

Some of the felons who are challenging the law say that their nonviolent status should make them eligible for gun purchases under the Second Amendment and the Bruen precedent. One case, Range v. Garland, deals with a Pennsylvania man who is unable to buy firearms because he fraudulently applied for food stamps more than a decade ago by falsifying his income. 

The other case that has been sent back to the lower courts is Antonyuk v. James, which challenges New York’s 2022 Concealed Carry Improvement Act. That law requires applicants for firearms carrying licenses to demonstrate “good moral character.” The justices said the Second Circuit Court of Appeals must review the law in wake of the Rahimi decision. 

The justices did not explain in detail their reasoning for remanding the cases to lower courts rather than hear their arguments for clarity’s sake. Justice Thomas included a short statement with the court orders on Tuesday saying that the cases should come back to the justices only once final judgments are handed down in the wake of Rahimi.

One of the issues Justice Thomas wants to address is the definition of “arms” in the Second Amendment. The longest-serving member of the court says the Supreme Court is “far from a comprehensive framework for evaluating restrictions on types of weapons, and it leaves open essential questions such as what makes a weapon ‘bearable,’ ‘dangerous,’ or ‘unusual.’”

The New York Sun

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