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Supreme Court sidesteps major ruling on gun rights

The Supreme Court on Monday sidestepped a major Second Amendment ruling, saying that New York City’s repeal of a controversial gun regulation had rendered the legal challenge moot.

In an unsigned two-page opinion, a majority of the justices opted to return the case to the lower courts for further litigation rather than revisit the scope of an individual’s right to bear arms for the first time in a decade.

Three of the court’s reliable conservatives, Justices Samuel AlitoSamuel AlitoJustices hear sparring over scope of safeguards for minority voters Kavanaugh dismays conservatives by dodging pro-Trump election lawsuits Laurence Tribe: Justice Thomas is out of order on 2020 election MORE, Neil GorsuchNeil GorsuchJustices raise bar for noncitizens to challenge removal from US after conviction Supreme Court faces landmark challenge on voting rights Kavanaugh dismays conservatives by dodging pro-Trump election lawsuits MORE and Clarence ThomasClarence ThomasChief Justice Roberts accuses court of turning judges into 'advice columnists' Vernon Jordan: an American legend, and a good friend Kavanaugh dismays conservatives by dodging pro-Trump election lawsuits MORE, dissented.

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The court's move is likely to disappoint the National Rifle Association (NRA), which backed the challengers in the case. The gun rights group had asked the justices to use the case to develop a stricter constitutional standard for regulating firearms.

Gun control advocacy groups like Everytown for Gun Safety applauded the outcome.

"The NRA invited the Supreme Court to adopt its extreme and dangerous interpretation of the Second Amendment, and the court declined," Everytown said in a statement posted on Twitter.

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At issue was a New York City handgun regulation that put tight limits on licensed gun owners' ability to transport firearms outside the home. Residents could apply for a “premises” license, which allowed for the possession of a handgun in the home. 

Outside a gun owner’s specified address, however, the law granted few rights. Gun owners could carry their firearms to seven authorized shooting ranges in New York City. But transporting a gun elsewhere — even to a second home outside the city — was generally forbidden. 

Three licensed handgun owners, backed by the NRA, sued New York City in 2013 claiming the regulation infringed on their constitutional right to bear arms.

But before the case was argued at the Supreme Court, New York City and the state of New York changed their gun laws to allow more freedom of movement with a firearm.

On Monday, the justices said the regulation’s repeal had rendered the case moot.

But in a 31-page dissent, three conservative justices said the case should not have been dismissed. They expressed concerns that the court’s prior Second Amendment rulings were being applied incorrectly by lower courts.

In a landmark 2008 case, District of Columbia v. Heller, the court said the Second Amendment enshrines an individual’s right to keep and bear arms for self-defense. The court decided two years later that right applies at both the federal and state levels.

But the late Justice Antonin Scalia’s decision in the Heller case left key questions unanswered about the scope of the Second Amendment and how courts should determine when those rights were infringed, leaving it to lower courts to fill the gap over the past decade.

In his dissent, Alito, joined by Gorsuch and Thomas, said the court should have ruled that the New York regulation violated the landmark decision in Heller. 

“This case is not moot,” he wrote. “The City violated petitioners’ Second Amendment right, and we should so hold.”

This developing report was last updated at 12:11 p.m.