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New York’s Supreme Gun Distraction

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New York’s Supreme Gun Distraction

State and city leaders condemn a high court decision on legal firearms, saying that it will worsen rising violent crime—but that’s a problem in their own power to solve. Summer 2022
New York
Public safety

The Supreme Court recently struck down a 1913 New York State law restricting the carrying of licensed handguns, finding that the state’s demand for “proper cause” violates the Second and Fourteenth Amendments. Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the 6–3 majority, determined that forcing law-abiding, licensed firearm owners to demonstrate an “additional, special need” to carry their handguns outside the home is unconstitutionally burdensome.

New York’s public officials condemned the decision. New York City mayor Eric Adams said that the Supreme Court “will put New Yorkers at further risk of gun violence.” Governor Kathy Hochul called the ruling “reckless and reprehensible” and convened a special legislative session to impose new laws to “protect New Yorkers.” New York City public advocate Jumaane Williams denounced the ruling as “irresponsible, illogical, and immoral,” claiming that it would make it “easier to conceal and carry a gun, to arm oneself with the constant threat of violence and pain.”

It’s unlikely, however, that the Court’s ruling will have much impact, if any, on gun violence in New York. Virtually none of the shootings taking place on New York City streets involves legally owned firearms. Gun owners licensed to own a gun in their homes but not to carry one outside tend to follow the law and keep their guns at home. Data are scarce on this subject, but little evidence exists to suggest that licensed gun owners are involved in drive-by shootings, stickups, or gang-related assassinations. According to the NYPD, approximately 40,000 New Yorkers have handgun permits, allowing them to keep a gun at home. A disproportionately large number of these permits are held by residents of Staten Island, where the crime rate is lower than in the city at large.

On the other hand, the NYPD in the late 1990s found that “as many as 2 million illegal guns were in circulation in New York City in 1993.” The NYPD recovers approximately 7,500 guns annually, and we have no reason to think that the total number of illegal guns is much smaller than it was 30 years ago. Given a 50-to-1 ratio of illegal-to-legal guns, it becomes increasingly clear that letting legal gun owners obtain carry permits won’t make much of a difference to the rate of violent crime in New York, which has soared in recent years.

The Court’s decision, though, is a boon to politicians like Mayor Adams, whose preferred solution to the problem of gun violence is to demand that the federal government do something about it. Adams routinely faults the “iron pipeline” that supposedly feeds guns into New York City, “where guns are not made and are too frequently used,” and insists that “we need our entire federal government to be focused on addressing this crisis.” But local gang violence and gun-toting criminals are not issues like, say, inflation or climate change, which demand a federal response because they are so far beyond the scope of municipal government to handle. In fact, New York City long ago demonstrated that it is eminently capable of keeping guns off the streets and lowering the rate of violent crime without appealing to the White House. Proactive policing—including the use of stop-question-and-frisk to identify and arrest people illegally carrying guns; the enforcement of laws against fare evasion in the subways; and the prosecution of other “minor” crimes against public order—has a proven record of success in getting criminals off the street and in discouraging them from carrying illegal guns around the city.

Recent reforms to policing and the criminal-justice system in New York, not federal inattention, are directly to blame for the spike in violent crime. Many serious offenses are no longer “bailable,” so arrestees get released almost immediately after arraignment—if they are arrested at all. Adams’s predecessor, Bill de Blasio, disbanded the NYPD’s anticrime unit, which was uniquely successful in breaking up gangs and interrupting crimes in progress. Though partially resuscitated under Adams, the units are no longer plainclothes teams, which limits their effectiveness. Leftist prosecutors and judges are using their discretion not to prosecute crimes such as shoplifting or even assault, leading to a climate of impunity that emboldens criminals.

Amid this criminogenic environment, in which the machinery of law and order has been systematically sabotaged, it is no surprise that a hobbled political leadership, already assailed from the left as too punitive, would point to a high court decision as the source of its problems. The Supreme Court’s ruling on the right of legal gun owners to carry their guns for self-defense is not going to affect the crime rate in New York City significantly. The solution to the problem can be found locally, through a steady rebuilding of the city’s institutions of public safety.

Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

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