Local View: Middle ground still possible before Minnesota gun law gets shot down

Gun Rights

The case challenges a more restrictive New York statute requiring “proper cause” for the issuance of a permit to carry. An affiliate of the National Rifle Association is contesting it, claiming it violates the Second Amendment’s “right to bear arms.”

Two years ago, the court fired a blank at a different New York City gun-control ordinance, bypassing a ruling because the law had been repealed by the time the matter reached the High Court. The case was deemed moot.

But this one isn’t, and Second-Amendment supporters are locked and loaded for battle, hoping that the court’s six-member conservative majority will rule in their favor. Gun-safety advocates, on the other hand, fear the conservative-leaning tribunal will invalidate the New York law, creating an unregulated terrain for gun purchasers. More ominously for the gun-safety side, the court could use rhetoric that would provide ammunition for future challenges to other firearm regulatory measures.

The current case — New York State Rifle & Pistol Association. v. Bruen — has particular significance here in Minnesota because of a state high-court decision last summer, State v. Hatch, that upheld Minnesota’s conceal-carry law. In a tightly written, eight-page decision authored by Chief Justice Lorie Gildea, the court unanimously rejected the claim of a gun owner whose unlicensed weapon was found by police in his disabled truck near the Twin Cities airport that his subsequent conviction and 180-day sentence violated his Second Amendment rights. The claim, in Minnesota, has no counterpart in the state constitution, unlike 45 other states that have similar provisions in their constitutions.

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The chief justice deemed the state permit law a legitimate exercise of a “compelling governmental interest in the ensuring of public safety.” The law was “rational” because it was “narrowly tailored” so that licensure was relatively easy to obtain under the “must issue” clause of the conceal-carry law, mandating issuance of permits by county sheriffs to any 21-year-old citizen with modest training and not ineligible due to committing prior proscribed offenses or listed as a criminal gang member.

That ruling left Minnesota’s conceal carry law and related firearm measures intact.

But not so fast on the draw. The case heard last Wednesday by the U.S. Supreme Court targets the New York law requiring a gun owner to have “proper cause” for licensure to carry a firearm outside the home. A ruling invalidating the law could effectively negate the Minnesota statute, and others like it, despite the unanimous Hatch ruling this summer. But upholding the New York law would solidify the Minnesota statute and the state Supreme Court decision in the Hatch case.

The stakes couldn’t be greater for Second-Amendment advocates and their adversaries. Nor could the numbers be higher in Minnesota and in this county. Some 97,000 carry permits were issued in Minnesota last year, nearly double the number a year earlier, an all-time record since the law went into effect in 2003. A similar trend exists in St. Louis County, where Sheriff Ross Litman issued 4,376 permits last year, an increase of more than 50%, compared to 2,891 in 2019.

Social discord, civil unrest, increasing crime rates, and public perceptions have all contributed to those remarkable increases — along with the feeling that forthcoming legislation may impose restrictions on gun ownership, such as expanded background checks and “red flag” measures passed in both the federal and state houses of representatives but stalled in respective senate bodies. Both issues are likely to arise in the election campaigns next year and, depending upon the outcome of the balloting, could resurface at the Capitol and be enacted or scuttled altogether.

But, as is often the case, a middle ground exists for the high court. The “proper cause” requirement in the New York law is challenged as unduly vague. As a compromise, the high court could embrace the concept underlying the law as valid but strike down the specific measure on grounds of its imprecision.

That would leave the Minnesota conceal-carry law, as construed in the Hatch case, intact while sending a message that lawmakers must draft gun regulatory measures precisely and narrowly.

Reaching that middle ground may be a formidable challenge that pleases and displeases both sides.

But it’s worth a shot.

Marshall H. Tanick is a constitutional law attorney in Minneapolis. He wrote this for the News Tribune.

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