Criminal Justice

Gun Control Scheme Harms Black and Hispanic New Yorkers, Public Defenders Tell Supreme Court

“New York enacted its firearm licensing requirements to criminalize gun ownership by racial and ethnic minorities.”


The U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments this fall in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Corlett, a case about the constitutionality of New York's requirement that anyone seeking a license to carry a concealed handgun in public first satisfy a local official that he has "proper cause" to do so.

Big cases about hot button issues like gun control always attract a lot of friend of the court briefs, and this one is no exception. Many of those briefs will have zero impact on the ruling. But a brief filed this month just might make a difference.

The brief is from a coalition of public defense lawyer organizations, including the Black Attorneys of Legal Aid, the Bronx Defenders, and Brooklyn Defender Services. They are urging the Supreme Court to overrule New York's gun licensing scheme for both violating the Second Amendment and disparately harming black and Hispanic people.

"Each year," the groups state in their brief, "we represent hundreds of indigent people whom New York criminally charges for exercising their right to keep and bear arms. For our clients, New York's licensing requirement renders the Second Amendment a legal fiction. Worse, virtually all our clients whom New York prosecutes for exercising their Second Amendment rights are Black and Hispanic." And that, the brief argues, "is no accident. New York enacted its firearm licensing requirements to criminalize gun ownership by racial and ethnic minorities. That remains the effect of its enforcement by police and prosecutors today."

According to the public defender groups, New York's scheme has "brutal" consequences for their clients. They write:

New York police have stopped, questioned, and frisked our clients on the streets. They have invaded our clients' homes with guns drawn, terrifying them, their families, and their children. They have forcibly removed our clients from their homes and communities and abandoned them in dirty and violent jails and prisons for days, weeks, months, and years. They have deprived our clients of their jobs, children, livelihoods, and ability to live in this country. And they have branded our clients as 'criminals' and 'violent felons' for life. They have done all of this only because our clients exercised a constitutional right.

It's possible that such arguments will resonate with Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who is perhaps the Court's leading critic of overpolicing and related law enforcement abuses. This brief seems to be right up her alley. As the public defense lawyers make clear, a ruling against New York's gun control scheme would be a victory not only for the Second Amendment but for criminal justice reform.