Supreme Court decision puts crime-fighting Adams under the gun

Mayor Eric Adams has a tough job. It’s going to get tougher. The Supreme Court’s ruling last week in favor of the New York State Rifle & Pistol Association will make it harder for the city to keep handguns out of the hands of violent criminals.

For the first time, the court has ruled that the Constitution “protect[s] an individual’s right to carry a handgun for self-defense,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote.

New York soon must start issuing licenses to carry weapons to anyone who can pass a basic test.

Can’t we take comfort that only law-abiding folk will be eligible? As Justice Brett Kavanaugh reminded us, New York will still be able to rely on “prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons.”

This is naïve. The Supreme Court has normalized carrying a gun. That means more people will do it.

As carrying a gun around becomes normal behavior, like carrying your phone — that’s the way it is in parts of the south and west — it will be harder to prosecute felons for carrying an illegal gun.

The law is the law, sure — but laws exist to enforce social norms. If toting a handgun to the supermarket is no longer antisocial or strange behavior, felons carrying weapons will no longer be subverting a social norm.

According to Justice Clarence Thomas, the court has ruled that the Constitution "protects an individual’s right to carry a handgun for self-defense."
According to Justice Clarence Thomas, the court has ruled that the Constitution “protects an individual’s right to carry a handgun for self-defense.”
Paul Martinka

We see this with open-air marijuana sales and drug use. Both remain illegal. But people are doing it everywhere. We’ve stopped treating this behavior as something normal people don’t do — and so we’ve lost the will to prosecute it.

Even if we find prosecutors who want to prosecute illegal gun possession, such cases will run into our racialization of everything. It will be harder for a prosecutor to convince a jury that a young black man carrying a gun despite a felony record should go to prison.

After all, he would have applied for a gun permit — but systemic racism made him a felon. Defense lawyers can also argue that the young black man with a felony record has a far greater need to carry a weapon to protect himself — from the police! — than white people do. 

This is not hypothetical. A group of public defenders from around the state said after the ruling that “we represent too many people of color who face years in prison not for shooting, but for simply possessing an unlicensed gun — something that is legal in close to half of the country.”

The defenders want “new gun regulations” to “address the mass criminalization and incarceration of people of color for unlicensed gun possession.” 

Associate Justice Clarence Thomas
Associate Justice Clarence Thomas
Erin Schaff/The New York Times via AP, Pool

It’s going to be harder to prosecute gun crime just as the court’s ruling pours a far larger number of guns into circulation.

Where guns are legal and ubiquitous, people casually leave them in their glove compartments and forget them at the gym. 

In New Orleans, a gun-happy place not exactly renowned for its low murder rate, firearm owners had 2,100 guns stolen from them over three years — guns then used in crimes from murder to robbery.

Who did these law-abiding folk protect — by failing to secure their deadly weapons? 

OK, but can’t we declare much of New York City a “sensitive area,” where you can’t carry your gun?

Except: “there is no historical basis for New York to effectively declare the island of Manhattan a ‘sensitive place,’” the court said.

Broad definitions of “sensitive” will end up in court again — we may “win” Times Square New Year’s Eve, but we won’t win it all the time.

Adams said that private businesses can prohibit armed customers from entering. But enforcement of an unworkable patchwork will fall into the racial trap.

New York can’t go easy on the white lady who brought her gun to the opera because she “forgot” she had it — and go hard on the black man with a felony record who “forgot” he was holding a piece for his friend. 

As Justice Samuel Alito wrote, the three justices who dissented from last week’s ruling “think that the ubiquity of guns and our country’s high level of gun violence provide reasons for sustaining the New York law” but “appear not to understand that it is these very facts that cause law-abiding citizens to feel the need to carry a gun.”

This dynamic is working out great in the rest of the country, with far higher murder rates than New York City.

Conservatives are supposed to act pragmatically and prudently — but here, the court has “solved” a problem that didn’t exist and created a huge new problem for local officials.

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