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NYC Potentially 'Dodging A Bullet' In Supreme Court By Easing Strict Handgun Laws

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New York City is poised to ease its famously strict handgun laws ever so slightly, and gun rights advocates say it's an effort to avoid a potential challenge in the Supreme Court.

Current city code states that gun owners must register their firearms with the NYPD, and license them to a specific place, such as a home or a business. New Yorkers who have these “premise permits” can take their unloaded gun in a locked container to one of seven firing ranges in New York City for practice. To take their weapon out hunting, they’ll need prior permission from the NYPD. Other than that, those with a premise license cannot take the gun anywhere, including outside city limits. There are currently about 16,300 active premise permits, according to the department.

But earlier this spring the NYPD proposed a new rule: those with a premise permit for a handgun could now take that firearm directly to and from another residence, a shooting range outside of New York City, or a firearms competition or hunting grounds outside New York City without notifying the department.

These changes happen to address the very issues raised in New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. City of New York, originally filed more than six years ago. The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case in January, and oral arguments are scheduled for the fall.

It’s the court’s first gun rights case in nearly a decade, and the nine justices could rule specifically on the restrictions contested in the lawsuit, or more broadly on Second Amendment rights.

“Following review, the Police Department determined that it could amend the rule to better accommodate the interests of gun owners consistent with public safety,” Nicholas Paolucci, a spokesperson for the Law Department, said in a written statement.

But John DeLoca, an owner of Seneca Sporting Range in Queens, viewed the city’s move more skeptically.

“What they’re doing is, they’re dodging the bullet — no pun intended,” he said.

DeLoca has no involvement in the court case, but supports the plaintiffs’ arguments and is eager to have the case go before nine justices. He said the city was throwing “crumbs” to gun owners to avoid having the case go before the Supreme Court.

Indeed, the city’s law department argued in a filing to the Supreme Court in April that, if adopted, the new “rule would render this case moot.” Days later, an attorney for the plaintiffs called the city’s move “a nakedly transparent effort to evade this Court’s review.”

“It depends on what side you’re looking at it from whether you think it’s a bad faith effort or a good faith strategic move,” said Jacob Charles, executive director of the Center for Firearms Law at Duke University.

Listen to reporter Yasmeen Khan's story for WNYC:

Earlier this month, the city accepted public comments on the proposed changes and held a hearing at 1 Police Plaza. One person testified publicly, according to police officials (and it was in favor of the rule change). The police department received a total of 37 written comments.

The NYPD has the ultimate authority to change the rules governing premise permits. It has not yet posted a final version of the proposed rule change. But once it does, the change would go into effect after 30 days and the city could ask for the Supreme Court to dismiss the case.

“It’s fair to say that New York City sees the writing on the wall that the Supreme Court, once it takes a case, may not be confined to just narrowly ruling on the regulation at issue,” Charles said.

Yasmeen Khan is a reporter covering crime and policing at WNYC. You can follow her on Twitter @yasmeenkhan.

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