Supreme Court sidesteps major ruling on 2nd Amendment after New York changes gun law

Handguns are displayed at the Smith & Wesson booth at the 2018 National Shooting Sports Foundation's Shooting, Hunting, Outdoor Trade Show on January 23, 2018, in Las Vegas, Nevada. By Ariane de Vogue, CNN Supreme Court Reporter

(CNN) -- The Supreme Court on Monday sidestepped issuing a major ruling on a New York handgun law, a blow to 2nd Amendment advocates and the Trump administration, who had hoped the conservative majority would expand gun rights as early as this term.

The court's action means that the Supreme Court has gone a decade without deciding a major 2nd Amendment case.

The case, which was argued in December, concerns a New York City law that regulates where licensed handgun owners can take a locked and unloaded handgun.

Monday's order is a victory -- for now -- for supporters of gun regulations who feared the justices would take an idiosyncratic state law and use it as a vehicle to expand upon a landmark opinion by the late Justice Antonin Scalia from 2008 that held for the first time that an individual had a right to keep and bear arms at home for self-defense.

In an unsigned opinion, the court said that it sent the case back because after the justices agreed to hear the dispute, the New York law at issue was changed.

Justices Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas dissented.

When the Supreme Court agreed to take up the case, the law blocked individuals from removing a handgun from the address listed on the license except to travel to nearby authorized small arms ranges or shooting clubs.

New York argued the rule was not a burden on 2nd Amendment rights and that it represented a reasonable means to protect public safety.

The New York State Rifle & Pistol Association, a gun owners group and individual plaintiffs challenged the law arguing that it was too restrictive and that a New Yorker could not transport his handgun to his "second home for the core constitutional purpose of self-defense or to an upstate county to participate in a shooting competition, or even across the bridge to a neighboring city for target practice."

Lawyers for the Trump administration sided with the challengers, arguing that "few laws in our history have restricted the right to keep and bear arms as severely as this ban does."

In a twist, after the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, the city allowed licensed owners to take handguns to other locations, including second homes or shooting ranges outside city limits. In addition, the State of New York amended its handgun licensing statute to require localities to allow licensed gun owners to engage in such transport.

As a result, New York argued the justices should dismiss the case.

Lawyers challenging the law countered that the only reason it was amended was supporters of gun regulations feared that the Supreme Court's new conservative majority might use the idiosyncratic law to render a broad decision cutting back on gun restrictions.

An 'epiphany of sorts,' Alito says of New York

In his dissent, Alito expressed frustration that the court had declined to decide whether the city's law violated the Second Amendment because the law had been changed once the justices agreed to hear the case.

"Although the city had previously insisted that its ordinance served important public safety purposes, our grant of review apparently led to an epiphany of sorts, and the city quickly changed its ordinance," Alito wrote.

Alito stressed that even though the law had been changed, those challenging it had not been provided with all the relief they sought.

"Petitioners got most, but not all, of the prospective relief they wanted," Alito wrote, "and that means that the case is not dead." He specifically noted their claims for damages.

The gun-control groups Everytown for Gun Safety Action Fund and Moms Demand Action welcomed the court's decision on Monday, with Everytown President John Feinblatt saying in a statement that the court "just thwarted the gun lobby's hope for a broad ruling that could slow the gun safety movement's growing momentum."

UPDATE: This story has been updated with additional information from the ruling.

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