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NY can enforce laws banning guns from ‘sensitive locations’ for now

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — New York can continue to enforce laws banning firearms in certain “sensitive” locations and require that handgun owners be of “good moral character,” a federal appeals court ruled Friday in its first broad review of a host of new gun rules passed in the state after a landmark Supreme Court ruling last year.

But in a 261-page decision, a three-judge panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of appeals also blocked some aspects of New York’s new gun rules, including a ban on people bringing firearms into houses of worship.

The court also rejected a requirement that applicants for a handgun license turn over a list of social media accounts they maintained over the past three years, citing free speech concerns.

The court also said the state can’t enforce part of the law that made it a crime to carry a concealed gun onto private property without the express consent of the owner — a restriction that would have kept firearms out of places like shops, supermarkets and restaurants unless the proprietor put a sign up saying guns were welcome. It did, however, allow the state to continue its ban on firearms in so-called “sensitive” locations, such as public transportation, hospitals and schools.

The ruling by the appeals court was at an early stage of a legal battle seen as eventually likely to wind up before the Supreme Court again after the justices in 2022 struck down New York’s old rules for getting a license to carry a handgun outside the home. For decades, the ability to legally carry guns in public had been restricted only to people who could show they had a special need for protection.

State officials responded by crafting legislation that was intended to open the door to more people getting a handgun license, but simultaneously put a host of new restrictions on where guns could be carried. Lawmakers, acting months after a white supremacist killed 10 Black people at a supermarket in Buffalo, banned guns in places including public playgrounds and schools, theaters, places that serve alcohol and buses and airports.

Multiple lawsuits were filed challenging the rules, leading to a series of lower court decisions upholding some of New York’s new law but decreeing that other aspects were unconstitutional.

In its ruling Friday, the judges wrote that it was “not facially unconstitutional” for the state to require that applicants for a license to carry a handgun be of good moral character.

“A reasoned denial of a carry license to a person who, if armed, would pose a danger to themselves, others, or to the public is consistent with the well-recognized historical tradition of preventing dangerous individuals from possessing weapons,” the court wrote.

But the judges did rule against the requirement that handgun license applicants turn over a list of their social media accounts.

“Requiring applicants to disclose even pseudonymous names under which they post online imposes an impermissible infringement on Second Amendment rights that is unsupported by analogues in the historical record and moreover presents serious First Amendment concern,” the court wrote.

The U.S. Supreme Court, in its ruling last year knocking down New York’s old gun rules, had suggested some limits on who could carry guns, and where they could be carried, were acceptable, as long as they conformed with the long tradition of gun regulation in the United States.

Judges since then have struggled to apply that finding by examining old rules about guns from decades, or even centuries in the past, often reaching starkly different conclusions.

In its ruling Friday, the 2nd Circuit judges suggested some lower courts had been too dismissive of some of the “historical analogues” offered by the state as proof that its restrictions on guns in sensitive places fell within a national tradition of regulation.

But on the subject of banning guns in houses of worship, the court ruled the state had potentially violated religious liberty by creating a different set of rules for churches, synagogues and mosques than for places where groups of people gather for secular activity.

“The state of New York can’t tell houses of worship how they protect their people,” said Jeremy Dys, senior counsel at First Liberty Institute, which is representing a pastor who sued over the law.

“At this stage, the State has not demonstrated that allowing church leaders to regulate their congregants’ firearms is more dangerous than allowing other property owners to do the same,” the judges wrote. “It hard to see how the law advances the interests of religious organizations, as a whole, by denying them agency to choose for themselves whether to permit firearms.”

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul and Attorney General Letitia James said the ruling will keep New Yorkers safe.

“This commonsense law was enacted to keep guns out of dangerous hands and away from schools, hospitals, parks, public transportation, and other sensitive locations,” James said in a statement.

Erich Pratt of the Gun Owners of America, a lobbying organization involved in the litigation, said the group is weighing whether to take the case to the Supreme Court.

“Nevertheless, this was not a total victory, and we will continue the fight until this entire law is sent to the bowels of history where it belongs,” he said.

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