New York City has some of the most-restrictive firearms laws in the country. Still, in 2021, criminals committed nearly 8,000 felonies with guns in what some affectionately call “Gotham.” How does that add up? The disparity in these two facts shows that, indeed, if it is criminal to have a gun, only criminals will have guns.
Yes, the balance of power between criminals and law-abiding residents of New York has long needed some serious recalibration.
But then, last June, New York state residents interested in their own protection—and in exercising their constitutional rights—found what appeared to be welcome relief in the ruling by the United States Supreme Court in an NRA-backed case called New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen (2022). The case originated when the petitioners, Brandon Koch and Robert Nash (described by the Court as “adult, law-abiding New York residents”) applied for unrestricted licenses to carry handguns in public for self-defense. A local licensing official in the Albany area denied both of their applications, claiming that Koch and Nash failed to satisfy what New York state called its “proper cause” requirement—which effectively meant that, for example, only diamond dealers or large-cash couriers would be issued permits to legally carry a working gun within New York City limits or other jurisdictions in this state, while licensing officials denied most citizens’ right to bear arms. At the time, according to the State of New York, the “cause” of self-defense was not “proper” enough if a licensing official thought it wasn’t.
The Bruen ruling declared that this proper-cause requirement for obtaining a concealed-carry firearm license was unconstitutional, as it was in violation of the Second and Fourteenth Amendments.
If it is truly the case that the “right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed,” as the Second Amendment makes clear, then gun owners should not need to provide a proper cause to state authorities for bearing those arms. Constitutional rights are basically restrictions on government, after all, so law-abiding citizens should not be required to prove a special need.
“We too agree, and now hold … that the Second and Fourteenth Amendments protect an individual’s right to carry a handgun for self-defense outside the home,” wrote Justice Clarence Thomas in delivering the opinion of the Court.
Denouncing the state’s proper-cause requirement, he continued:
We know of no other constitutional right that an individual may exercise only after demonstrating to government officers some special need. That is not how the First Amendment works when it comes to unpopular speech or the free exercise of religion. It is not how the Sixth Amendment works when it comes to a defendant’s right to confront the witnesses against him. And it is not how the Second Amendment works when it comes to public carry for self defense.
In the days and weeks after this decision, tens of thousands of New Yorkers were inspired to put in applications. I was one of them. But we have found, due to the state’s maneuverings, the ruling in certain ways has only made obtaining and carrying a legal firearm for self-defense more difficult than ever before.
Within days of the June decision, even as state officials were compelled to obey the letter of the law of the new judicial ruling, city and state legislators were already hard at work to disarm its actual implementation. Their weapon was that favorite New York brand of bureaucracy known as red tape. Yes, the proper-cause requirement was out. But now applicants would need to supply “four character references and a list of current and former social-media accounts from the last three years.” Not only would they be interviewed by the licensing agency, but also their neighbors might receive a knock on the door. They would need to take expensive training and much more. Finally, and most absurdly, there would be numerous “exclusion zones” (also called “sensitive-place” restrictions) where even “licensed gun carriers … may not enter with a gun.”
It should come as little surprise that criminals chose to ignore the designated “gun-free” zoning.
Exclusion zones? In New York City, the signs suddenly were everywhere. Times Square Gun Free Zone read the laminated cards taped to the lampposts on Sixth Avenue. Zona Libre de Pistolas flashed the illuminated construction sign trucked in on Eighth. “Licensed gun carriers and others,” the signs went on, “may not enter with a gun unless otherwise specially authorized by law.” To do so, claimed the signs, would be a felony. It was a strange message to be broadcasting to the theatergoers heading to Broadway and the researchers off to the Public Library on Fifth.
As these signs went up to keep licensed firearms out of Times Square, it should come as little surprise that criminals chose to ignore the designated “gun-free” zoning. On the early evening of Feb. 9, 2023, Idrissa Siby, a 22-year-old Bronx man, was at a Shake Shack on West 44th Street when two men entered this very same Times Square Gun Free Zone and shot him in the chest. The victim was pronounced dead when he reached the hospital; his assailants remain at large. Somehow, they failed to heed the signs.
“Virtually all crime with guns in Gotham is committed by people wielding illegal guns, operating completely outside the gun-permitting and registration system,” said Seth Barron in City Journal. Beyond its tragic absurdity, the Times Square Gun Free Zone, along with other exclusion areas, such as parks and subways, is designed merely to complicate legal gun ownership, in defiance of the Supreme Court’s authority and has already become another constitutional challenge; in fact, in the Bruen decision, the Court already wrote against any attempt to “characterize New York’s proper-cause requirement as a ‘sensitive-place’ law … because there is no historical basis for New York to effectively declare the island of Manhattan a ‘sensitive place’ simply because it is crowded and protected generally by the New York City Police Department.”
Still, New Yorkers are resilient. Statistically, the city is better off than some other urban areas. Our mayor, Eric Adams, says the city has “swagger” and a “brand.” But that brand should not be the violence and fear that still inordinately affects the lives of the city’s poor and working classes and minority neighborhoods—violence that is almost always perpetuated by serial offenders. Thanks to radically permissive prosecutors, “bail reform” and other changes, the justice system has become a revolving door; felonies are now misdemeanors, and the city no longer believes incarceration is justified, even when it comes to violent crime. The riots of the summer of 2020, which set parts of the city ablaze for days as gangs were allowed to ransack the heart of the metropolis, demonstrated the extremes of the new ideology.
If ever self-defense was a proper cause for legal firearms ownership, the time is now. Crime is up across the board. The latest crime wave has been a civic disaster, especially since the City reached historic lows just a decade ago, after the highs of the early 1990s. Now the appearance of crime in New York is again a regular occurrence. The subway turnstile has become a track and field event for fare beaters. Shoplifting is so pervasive that drug-store shampoo must be kept under lock and key. More seriously, not a day goes by without some tragedy shaking the spirit of the City as it attempts to rebound from the toll of the pandemic.
Between June 2021 and June 2022, crime in the City went up over 30%. Robberies were up 36%, felony assaults by 17%, burglaries by 33% and grand larcenies by 41%. On the ground, the real-world effects are more than mere statistics. Consider the 2020 case of a Bronx deli worker who refused to sell a woman a loose cigarette. She threatened to “get her man,” who then came to assassinate the clerk in cold blood—just one of a string of killings around convenience stores. Or how about the case of a commuter on a Brooklyn subway platform one Friday afternoon in October 2022? He was stalked by a deranged man, who then charged and pushed him without warning onto the subway tracks.
Twenty blocks south of Times Square, just west of Fifth Avenue in New York’s Flatiron District, I went to meet Darren Leung of the Westside Rifle & Pistol Range for advice on maneuvering through the ever-changing requirements of legal gun ownership. Westside has held out against the City’s history of firearm hypocrisies longer than anywhere. There was a time when even New York City schools had shooting ranges in their basements. Pistol ranges proliferated in social clubs around town. Now, Westside serves as Manhattan’s last remaining public gun range. Occupying the same basement space of a gilded-age office building since August 1965, the range has survived the gentrification of the neighborhood from a warehouse district into a high-rent design center with fashionable restaurants and multi-million-dollar lofts. Fortunately, its owner, Darren, serves as a clearinghouse for information about the moving target that is New York’s gun laws—helping to advise on more than a few of the 26,000 new gun registrations that flooded into the City’s licensing bureau in the month following the court ruling.
“Think about this,” he told me as we sat down for coffee in the club’s lounge, “we are told that 26,000 applications went in overnight for carry permits. Considering the fact that there are already delays in getting renewals out, delays in getting new permits out and now, on top of that, they have 26,000 additional applicants! You are now looking at a backlog of two to three years.”
The range’s rooms were strewn with firearms memorabilia and boxes of free donuts—yeah, the atmosphere is a little different than the Italian design store and the day spa right next door. The range boasts some 2,000 users and members while providing essential Federal Firearms License services. The range also hosts 16 shooting stations.
“We’ve long been in a system that’s very restrictive,” said Darren. “Even the police officers are not immune to this. Say you have spent 25 years of your life in law enforcement, but if you don’t show consecutive years of conforming to the Law Enforcement Officers Safety Act, HR218, I am going to downgrade your carry to a premise permit unless you take that 18-hour class? Someone invested 25 years of his life fighting for us and they do this to them? That makes no sense to me.”
Because of the licensing backlog, Darren suggests a different strategy: try first for a premise permit, rather than a carry permit, which might just take one year instead of three. “On renewal, they will offer you an upgrade.” And keep in mind, he tells me, in New York City, the carry permit is still strictly limited to two firearms. Any more would need to go on a premise permit anyway. If you have a long gun, in New York, that requires a third permit—and another fee. “I do the three-card monty all the time,” he says.
Oh, and Darren could only sell me a single firearm every 90 days.
New York’s gun laws are designed to wear you out. Nevertheless, he says, membership at the range is up, especially among women and younger applicants. “I had a customer who lived in the East Village. During the riots, he said to his wife, ‘are these people going to break in and come upstairs?’ He immediately applied for a shotgun. He said, “I feel so much better knowing I have something at home just in case.”
“It’s hard, I tell you,” Darren said about the state of his range. “I am amazed we survived, but by the good grace of God and some great members, we’re still here.”
Even as New York enacts new restrictions that challenge the application of Bruen, his attitude reflects the spirit of the state’s gun owners. The Bruen decision is only the first step. New permits could now take longer than ever before, and new restrictions are everywhere, but the survival of the Second Amendment is worth fighting for. In the meantime, he says, “Come to the range and enjoy yourself.”
That advice sounds right on target.
James Panero is the executive editor of The New Criterion and lives in New York City.