• Mario Nicolais

Supreme Court refuses to pull the trigger on gun laws

Supreme Court inaction often speaks as loudly as any opinion. By denying review of recent gun control laws in New York and Connecticut, the court effectively allowed the bans to remain in place. Without issuing a word on the merits, the court affected the gun rights debate more than Congress has over the past two decades.


In the wake of the 2012 Newtown elementary school tragedy, both the state legislatures in New York and Connecticut passed more restrictive laws outlawing many semi-automatic firearms. Because the Newtown murderer used such a weapon in his massacre, the legislatures sought to limit future access to similar high-capacity, semi-automatic guns.


Given the perpetually heated debate over gun laws, it was inevitable that both would end up in court shortly after the states’ respective governors signed them into law. Furthermore, the lower courts in such cases only serve as speed bumps on the road to higher appellate courts.


The ultimate goal is a Supreme Court decision. Those decisions are binding on all lower courts and set precedent for future Supreme Court rulings. They can only be overturned by subsequent Supreme Court opinions, though such occurrences are rare and usually come after decades of effort. For example, it took nearly 60 years before the “separate but equal” doctrine announced by Plessy v. Ferguson fell in Brown v. Board of Education.


But, by refusing to take the gun control cases at all, the Supreme Court denied all sides the opportunity to etch their position in legal stone. While the outcome is a nominal victory for gun control advocates, it does not establish the precedent they no doubt wished. For gun rights supporters, the opinion means they receive a fresh start the next time a state enacts similar laws.


Some members of the court wanted to hear the arguments. Citing the elephant in the room – and the firearm that has come to symbolize the gun law divide – Justice Clarence Thomas wrote, “Roughly 5 million Americans own AR-style semiautomatic rifles … The overwhelming majority of citizens who own and use such rifles do so for lawful purposes.”


Interestingly, this logic runs contrary to the states-rights rationale regularly employed by conservative jurists and legal analysts. The court’s decision allows individual states to continue legislating as they see fit for their citizens. Rationale employed to enact gun laws in New York may not be as persuasive in a more rural western state such as Wyoming or Idaho. Justice Thomas would circumvent the 50-state laboratory of democracy in this case. Instead, he would seek to determine a national rule for all Americans.


Part of the urgency may be due to the ever-approaching presidential election and the implications it has on the Supreme Court’s composition. With the confirmation of Merrick Garland almost certainly dead-in-the-water until at least after the election, the November winner will set the court’s balance of power. With Donald Trump floundering in polls and facing possible insurrection at the Republican National Convention, the conservative justices may have seen this as the last opportunity to set a binding precedent before a gun control friendly court is seated in 2017. While Garland is certainly not considered a friend of gun owner rights, it is possible that a President Hillary Clinton could choose a nominee even more hostile. Given that the Senate will likely be less conservative, if not controlled by Democrats, that prospect is even clearly inevitable.


In the end, the Supreme Court’s refusal to pull the trigger on gun laws this time around may just be the deep breath before taking aim next year.


Read this column from The Colorado Statesman online in ColoradoPolitics.com.

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