Posted on June 27, 2022

To Some Defenders, Gun Ruling Could Right a Racial Wrong

Jennifer Peltz, Associated Press, June 25, 2022

When the U.S. Supreme Court struck down New York’s tight restrictions on who can carry a handgun, condemnation erupted from liberal leaders and activists.

But some public defenders, often allies of progressive activists, praised the court’s ruling, saying gun-permitting rules like New York’s have long been a license for racial discrimination.

By making it a crime for most people to carry a handgun, New York and a few other states have ended up putting people — overwhelmingly people of color — behind bars for conduct that would be legal elsewhere, the defense lawyers complain.

“New York’s gun licensing regulations have been arbitrarily and discriminatorily applied, disproportionately ensnaring the people we represent, the majority of whom are from communities of color,” said The Legal Aid Society, which represents criminal defendants who can’t afford their own lawyers.

The court’s decision Thursday concerned a century-old law that said New Yorkers seeking gun licenses had to show an unusual threat to their safety if they wanted to carry a handgun in public.

Simply wanting a gun for personal defense was not enough. And the police departments or judicial magistrates were given wide discretion to decide who needs and deserves to carry a gun.


The Supreme Court, in a majority opinion by Justice Clarence Thomas, said New York’s system violated Americans’ Second Amendment right to “keep and bear arms.”


Black people faced 78% of felony gun possession charges in the state last year, while making up 18% of its population — compared to 7% of prosecutions and 70% of the population for non-Hispanic whites, the defenders said in their own friend-of-the-court brief. Over 90% of people arrested in New York City on charges of possessing a loaded firearm are Black and/or Latino, according to the filing, although non-Hispanic whites comprise nearly 1/3 of the city population.

The defenders argue that the numbers are rooted in a history of racist anxieties about racial and ethnic minorities having firearms and are furthered by an “expensive and onerous discretionary licensing process.”


“While white people throughout the nation amass firearm arsenals even as hobbies, Black and Latinx New Yorkers are arrested, prosecuted and imprisoned for simply possessing a single pistol for self-defense,” several of the brief’s authors wrote in an October article on Scotusblog, a legal news site.


In Chicago, Cook County Public Defender Sharone Mitchell Jr. has become convinced that Illinois’ firearms laws — which are strict but don’t include a New York-style “proper cause” standard — are doing less to keep guns off streets than to put people in prison. A quarter of his caseload involves no other charge but gun possession.

“We have a gun problem, full stop. But failed policies are part of the problem,” Mitchell said in a statement after the Supreme Court ruling in the New York case. “These laws facilitate racially targeted enforcement that sends thousands of Black people to prison because they do not have or cannot get the required licenses, not because they’ve been accused of harming someone.”