UPDATE: The U.S. Supreme Court struck down New York's concealed-carry handgun law Thursday in a 6-3 ruling. In anticipation of the decision, Gothamist spoke with legal experts about the potential impact on New York City area subways, buses and commuter rails.
The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling on New York’s strict gun permitting laws this month. Many New Yorkers fear the court’s conservative majority will overturn a state law that requires gun owners to show “proper cause” for needing to carry a concealed gun.
If the court throws out the century-old provision to New York’s gun law, there is concern more handguns will come into public places, along with more shootings. But also there are questions about how public places like the subways and buses, which have already seen several high profile shootings this year, will be regulated.
Legal experts said the city and state can make an argument designating the subways, buses and rails a so-called “sensitive place” — a designation barring all firearms in certain locations even to concealed carry owners. But many – including the Supreme Court justices themselves in oral argument – forecast this as the next legal battleground: How far can governments go in banning concealed-carry in public places?
MTA board member Norman Brown said if members of the public are allowed to carry a concealed weapon, there’s going to be an even greater demand for more policing in the subways. The city has already assigned over 1,000 more officers to the subways this year, and asked other beat officers to patrol the subways as part of their regular routine. The MTA and Mayor Eric Adams called for a greater police presence earlier this month, but transit and criminal justice advocates say there are too many officers as it is.
“It’s gonna be a complete disaster and shows how anti-urban the Supreme Court is at foundation,” Brown, who serves as labor commissioner for Metro-North on the board, said.
He also worries about the ongoing efforts to bring riders back to the subway system, which is still seeing reduced ridership due to the pandemic, and concerns about safety.
“This is both a practical fear and a marketing fear. How do you market the train if you are assuming the guy with the heavy coat has a gun under his?” Brown said.
'Best worst idea'
Kirk D. Burkhalter is a law professor at New York Law School, and a retired detective of the NYPD who served for 20 years and said the idea of allowing more civilians to carry concealed guns in New York City is the “best worst idea I’ve heard in quite some time.”
“When you have people without training armed, innocent people get hurt,” Burkhalter said. “It’s one of the most dangerous things I can think of.”
Burkhalter believes the federal government, which regulates travel and doesn’t allow firearms on airplanes, is likely to step in and regulate that space. And while private indoor places can continue to ban firearms, Burkhalter fears for outdoor places that could not be regulated.
“Road rage for instance, that’s the first thing that pops into my mind,” Burkhalter said. “We routinely have people that get into physical altercations and assault one another either with their fist or a blunt instrument. Arming a civilian populace so they can settle their problems with a firearm as opposed to other ways is a huge problem.”
The U.S. DOT declined to comment for this story until after the Supreme Court releases its opinion on the case.
Burkhalter is fairly confident that even if the Supreme Court strikes down New York’s conceal permit law there will be enough other regulations to prohibit most people from getting a gun easily.
Warren Eller, a chair of the Department of Public Management at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, expressed the same point, adding the city is likely mulling public spaces where guns are restricted.
“I’d bet what the city is going to do is pass a pretty large host of restrictions on conceal carry permits to include public transportation, making the argument that subway stations and even the subway itself is no different than large stadiums or other places where firearms are prohibited even with permits in different states,” Eller said. “It sounds pretty tremendous this decision, and it is pretty groundbreaking, but by the same token, the city life in New York is so integrated that it leaves a whole host of other opportunities to regulate firearms.”
Gov. Kathy Hochul recently signed several gun control measures following the mass shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde, Texas. Last week, Hochul said she’s been working with the state’s legal and policy team and Everytown For Gun Safety, a non-profit gun reform group, since they learned the Supreme Court would take up this case. She expects to have a legal response ready if the court rules in favor of loosening the gun restrictions, but she wouldn’t say what her plan is.
“I need to be able to keep my cards close,” Hochul said last Friday. “But the second that decision comes down because we've already done the groundwork, we'll be able to have an analysis done fairly quickly.”
She added, “We should have an idea of how we're going to respond. Is there executive action that be taken? Is there a legislative solution and I've already talked to the leaders about the possibility, in cooperation with them, bringing back the legislature in an extraordinary session.”
The MTA and the New York Attorney General’s Office declined to comment until the Supreme Court’s decision is announced.
Still, the potential ruling has transit advocates fearful.
"After the spate of recent shootings, riders have made it clear that they do not feel safer or comfortable with people more easily bringing guns into the transit system,” Lisa Daglian, executive director of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA, said. “The state, city, and MTA should continue to ban guns on transit and continue to fight against ghost guns and other illegal weapons.”
After the non-fatal mass shooting on an R train in April, Adams suggested installing metal detectors around the subway system. It’s unclear how effective a program like that would be, given the vastness of the subway system and the multiple points of entry. But some MTA board members support the efforts.
“I believe the MTA should be looking at all technologies to stop guns prior to their entry to the system,” MTA board member Andrew Albert wrote in a statement. “There are new types of metal detectors that are geared to guns or other weapons, rather than going off if someone has a huge bracelet or a metal hip. I think we should be looking at all these technologies to keep guns out of the system.”
The mayor also said he planned to “fortify” the police on their patrols and his police commissioner is expected to announce a new program to police the subways soon.
The mayor’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment or timeline for the new policing plan.
Herb Pinder contributed to this report.