NY gun law shot down by SCOTUS spurred by rise in gunplay in 1911

The Empire State gun law struck down by the Supreme Court on Thursday was enacted more than 100 years ago as a way to combat runaway gun violence plaguing the Big Apple at the time.

The Sullivan Act, named for New York City pol and Tammany Hall state Sen. Timothy D. “Big Tim” Sullivan, was introduced in 1911 in the wake of a notorious Gramercy Park murder-suicide and other shocking gun-related crimes.

The law, which helped influence gun control legislation in the US for decades to come, outlawed the carrying of concealed weapons without a police-issued permit.

The bill came in the wake of several high-profile shootings in the region, including the Aug. 9, 1910, shooting of New York City Mayor William Gaynor, who was shot and wounded while posing for a photograph on a Hoboken pier, according to a 2019 academic paper on the law by Montana State University.

Gaynor recovered, but the incident helped build momentum for gun reform.

On Jan. 23, 1911, city novelist David Graham Phillips was shot and killed.

New York’s Sullivan Act — named after state Sen. Timothy D. “Big Tim” Sullivan — was passed after several high-profile shootings in the state.
Photo by Buyenlarge/Getty Images

Coroner George Le Brun, a key figure in the introduction of the Sullivan Act, commented in the wake of the incidents that the “increase in deaths by shooting in murder and suicide cases in this city … should arouse the public to the immediate necessity of a law governing the sale of revolvers,” the Montana study said.

Once enacted, the law set stringent guidelines for obtaining a gun permit.

The law remained on the books and survived despite periodic legal challenges.

The attempted assassination of New York City Mayor William Gaynor in 1910 helped spur the Sullivan Act.
Photo by William H. Warneck/Frederic Lewis/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
The shooting death of novelist David Graham Phillips was another factor in the bill passing.

Then last year, two members of the New York State Rifle & Pistol Association filed a new legal challenge to the ancient legislation.

Brandon Koch and Robert Nash argued in court that they are law-abiding citizens entitled to unrestricted licenses to carry a handgun under the Second Amendment of the US Constitution — with the case making it all the way to the US Supreme Court.

The pair, who named New York State Police Superintendent Kevin Bruen as the respondent, were denied the permits for failing to satisfy the “proper cause” requirement.

The Supreme Court struck down the Sullivan Act with a vote of 6-3.
AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

The lawsuit was dismissed in New York’s appellate court system and made its way into the federal courts, until it reached SCOTUS last year.

On Thursday, a 6-3 majority of the nation’s highest court upheld the right of Nash and Koch to obtain the weapons under the Second and 14th amendments.

“It is undisputed that petitioners Koch and Nash — two ordinary, law-abiding, adult citizens — are part of ‘the people’ whom the Second Amendment protects,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in a majority opinion for the court.

“The Second Amendment’s plain text thus presumptively guarantees petitioners Koch and Nash a right to ‘bear’ arms in public for self-defense,” Thomas wrote.