0349 GMT March 22, 2019
A case before the Supreme Court this term could significantly affect whether densely populated cities like New York have the right to set their own gun policies.
At a glance, New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. City of New York is a limited dispute. It pits residents who have “premises licenses,” which allow them to possess guns only at their homes, against a New York City ordinance that restricts their travel with their weapons to shooting ranges and clubs within city borders. If the petitioners — a gun advocacy group along with three of these individuals — prevail, those with premises licenses will be allowed to take their handguns with them to out-of-town ranges. Not a big deal, right? Actually, it is. The case has implications far broader than sport shooting. If the court decides against the city, New York City and other cities around the country could become far more dangerous places.
As a university professor and the research director of a Southern gun violence prevention organization, I’ve spent the past eight years tracking how state and local-level court rulings and legislation promoted as limited in scope lead to sweeping changes in the ways people buy, carry and use firearms. Time and again, I’ve found that seemingly modest relaxation of local gun laws like the one at issue in New York undercut the ability of cities and communities to set their own regulations, and alter ways that people live and die.
For instance, in 2007, pro-gun politicians in Missouri repealed a seemingly arcane 1921 law governing the purchase of concealable firearms. Supporters of the repeal (backed by the National Rifle Association) pitched the change as simply easing a tedious and outdated requirement that prospective gun buyers fill out paperwork in person at sheriff’s offices. But this modest action was the first rumbling of an avalanche.
Missouri gun proponents built on the repeal to legalize “permitless carry” by anyone 19 years of age or older, nullify local gun-control ordinances, expand “stand your ground” protections and empower citizens to carry weapons into restaurants, bars, streets, schools and seemingly everyplace else. The police even lost the ability to disarm anyone carrying a firearm unless the individual was under arrest. The inability of local government to make gun laws threatened to turn Missouri into the “Wild West,” in the words of an exasperated City Council member in Webster Groves.
In Tennessee, N.R.A.-supported politicians pushed through legislation allowing guns in parks. Only after passage did people discover that the law weakened the state’s ability to restrict weapons at concerts and state fairs. A 2017 law in Arkansas permitted guns on college campuses — which made guns legal at Southeast Conference football games and other large sporting events. So-called guns-in-trunks laws in Ohio and some other states allowed employees to store guns and ammunition in their vehicles while at work — followed by jumps in the number of guns stolen out of cars. Sweeping open-carry legislation in Texas meant public libraries could not keep guns out of the stacks.
While these changes expand gun rights for certain people, they invariably lead to significant increases in injuries and deaths. Right-to-carry laws correlate with increases in violent crime and rising homicide and suicide rates, and also raise the likelihood that incidents of conflict like road rage or domestic arguments will turn fatal. For instance, homicides committed with guns in Missouri increased by 25 percent in the three years after the 2007 repeal, and more Missouri guns were recovered in crimes in neighboring states. Gun suicides rose over this period as well. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that states with the weakest gun laws and highest rates of gun ownership invariably have the highest rates of overall gun mortality. A recent study found that they also have higher rates of mass shootings.
Beyond the direct health effects, allowing guns in public spaces changes how we interact with one another. My research shows that people become more wary when they think a stranger might be armed — a mistrust that fuels further gun sales. Racial tensions and stereotypes often accompany this anxiety. “I see white guys walking around Sam’s Club with guns on their hips,” an African-American man in Missouri told me, which he saw as armed racial intimidation.
In an ideal world, New York City might serve as a model for effective gun policy. Gun-related injuries and deaths have been falling for the past decade — not coincidentally, over the same period that the city got serious about gun laws. New York has remarkably low rates of gun trauma for a United States city of its size. Municipal and state laws and regulations also effectively limit gun trafficking.
* Jonathan M. Metzl is a professor and the research director at the Safe Tennessee Project.
The opinion was first published in The New York Times.