Syracuse federal judge remains skeptical of NY gun law as he considers whether to quash it.
Updated: Sep. 29, 2022, 6:18 p.m.| Published: Sep. 29, 2022, 2:03 p.m. Syracuse Federal Building, home of the city's federal district courts.
By Douglass Dowty | firstname.lastname@example.org
Syracuse, NY — A federal judge in Syracuse on Thursday expressed doubt about the constitutionality of several parts of New York’s recent gun law as he heard arguments over whether to block its enforcement.
Why can’t religious congregations decide whether or not to allow guns into their houses of worship? Why are guns presumptively banned from private property without explicit permission from owners? How can the government order people to provide their social media accounts to apply for a gun license?
Those were among the concerns that U.S. District Judge Glenn Suddaby honed in on during hourlong arguments Thursday in Syracuse over whether he should temporarily ban the state from enforcing the new gun law, which took effect Sept. 1.
The judge is expected to rule anytime after telling the parties in the noon hour that he would issue a written decision.
During court, the judge voiced similar concerns to those he shared in his written opinion last month. Then he wrote that parts of the law were unconstitutional but said he couldn’t do anything about it yet. Those legal issues remained unresolved Thursday, with the state arguing that there still was no standing to challenge the law.
But the hearing also drilled down on questions of substance posed by the law.
For example, is a state law banning guns on private property without an owner’s permission a violation of the Second Amendment right to bear arms?
Stephen Stamboulieh, a Mississippi lawyer who represents several gun owners challenging the law, argued that such a ban unfairly targets gun owners.
For example, a home or business that welcomes guests with legal guns might need to post a large sign stating that preference, making them targets to those who may disagree with their position, Stamboulieh argued.
He urged the judge to restore the previous New York standard, in which guns were allowed unless property owners banned them. “I don’t have a problem with a private property owner excluding someone because of a gun,” Stamboulieh said.
On the other hand, the fact some people are uncomfortable with guns isn’t a reason to infringe on constitutional rights, he said.
“Maybe some people have a problem with (others carrying guns), but this is constitutional carry,” Stamboulieh said.
James Thompson, a special counsel to the state Attorney General’s Office for Second Amendment litigation, responded that the state wasn’t banning anything. Private property owners were free to decide whether to allow guns or not. The default was simply “no” instead of “yes.”
For example, shouldn’t a homeowner know if a repairman coming into their house is carrying a gun? Thompson asked.
“Property owners get to decide, and they get to know whether guns are being carried on their property,” Thompson said, adding later: “The government does not take a position one way or the other.”
The opposing arguments highlighted a difference of opinion that carried throughout the court proceeding. Should the judge be considering whether the law carried the danger of being applied unconstitutionally? Or should the judge consider only if there is a valid, constitutional application of the law?
“The standard should not be ‘Can we imagine an unconstitutional application?’ ” Thompson argued. “It’s ‘Can we imagine a constitutional one?’ ”
Every law, if misused, could be carried out unconstitutionally, Thompson added.
The state’s sweeping gun law forces otherwise law-abiding citizens to violate the law to exercise their Second Amendment rights, Stamboulieh responded. The threat of law-abiding citizens being arrested for a felony, punishable by prison time, for exercising their constitutional right to carry a gun was a “dire” situation, he said.
“Three days might be the difference between getting arrested or not,” Stamboulieh said of why the judge needed to act fast to strike down the law.
Both sides debated at length whether or not an Oswego County pastor should be able to carry his gun in church. Pastor Joseph Mann of the Fellowship Baptist Church, in Parish, is carrying his gun in defiance of the law banning guns in places of worship. He’s one of the plaintiffs in the current lawsuit, but was not required to be in court Thursday.
Stamboulieh said that Mann, and others in his congregation, had received special church-specific training in carrying guns to protect the church from attack.
But Thompson argued that banning weapons from places of worship might help prevent attacks by mass shooters. Suddaby questioned that argument, pointing to Stamboulieh’s argument that some attacks on religious services had been ended by armed congregants.
Both sides also battled over the requirement that gun applicants turn over their social media accounts for the past three years for consideration.
Thompson, the state lawyer, said nothing in the law required people to turn over passwords or set their settings so an investigating officer could read their social-media posts.
But Stamboulieh noted that the law stated the purpose of turning over social media accounts was so investigators could confirm whether or not the applicant exhibited the character and conduct needed to responsibly carry a gun. How could that be determined if the investigator couldn’t read someone’s social media posts?
Suddaby asked the state lawyer whether he could think of any other situation in which the government asked someone for their social media accounts on a sworn application.
Thompson said he couldn’t think of another form, but pointed to a long history of laws that prohibit gun ownership by people deemed a threat to themselves or others. Historically, mass shooters have posted of their plans publicly on social media, he added.
In his previous decision, Suddaby had opined that forcing someone to reveal their social-media accounts to exercise their Second Amendment right could be in violation of that person’s First Amendment right to free speech, or even their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination (if something potentially criminal was posted on their social media pages).
Beyond the myriad of arguments targeting different portions of the law, Suddaby also has to decide what his role will be in determining the way forward.
If the judge finds parts of the law unconstitutional, should he strike only those portions or the entire law? If he does strike down all or part of the law, should his ruling go into effect right away or remain stayed until the state has time to appeal?
Suddaby suggested that, if he does rule against the law, he might allow the state time to appeal before his order goes into effect. That would, in essence, leave the fate of the law to an appellate court.
Ultimately, regardless of what Suddaby decides, the state’s gun law appears headed for another review by the U.S. Supreme Court. The country’s high court set in motion the latest court battles by ruling New York’s gun licensing law unconstitutional, leading the state to respond by crafting the strictest gun laws in the country.