Law & Government

Public Defenders vs. Gun Control

A Supreme Court decision against New York's gun control scheme would be a victory for both criminal justice reform and the Second Amendment.


The U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments this fall in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen, which challenges the constitutionality of a state law requiring 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.

Like other big cases about hot-button issues, this one has attracted a lot of amicus curiae ("friend of the court") briefs. Many of those briefs will have zero influence on the ruling. But one filed in July just might have an impact.

The brief comes from a coalition of public defense lawyer organizations, including the Black Attorneys of Legal Aid, the Bronx Defenders, and Brooklyn Defender Services. They urged the Supreme Court to overturn New York's gun licensing scheme both because it violates the Second Amendment and because it disparately harms black and Hispanic people who carry firearms for self-defense purposes.

"Each year," the groups told the Court, "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 "is no accident," the brief argued. "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 had predictably "brutal" consequences for their clients. They have been "stopped, questioned, and frisked," "forcibly removed" from their homes, locked up "in dirty and violent jails and prisons," and "deprived….of their jobs, children, livelihoods, and ability to live in this country," all "because our clients exercised a constitutional right."

It's possible that such arguments will resonate with Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the Court's leading critic of overpolicing and related law enforcement abuses. As the public defenders make abundantly clear in their brief, a Supreme Court decision against New York's gun control scheme would be a victory not only for the Second Amendment but for criminal justice reform too.