For months now, the issue of whether or not a gun store should be allowed to open for business has been a hot-button topic of debate in the Boston suburb of Newton. After a sign went up announcing that Newton Firearms would soon be open for business in the suburb’s downtown area earlier this year, anti-gun activists launched a campaign to change the zoning laws in the city and ban gun shops entirely. Several other suburbs followed suit, debating bans of their own, and the Newton city council ended up passing a new ordinance limiting where gun stores would be allowed to open.
That didn’t go far enough for some activists, and on Monday night the city council was back in session debating an all-out ban on gun stores inside the city limits.
“I think that you have a reasonably good case that the Constitution does not guarantee the right to sell arms,” said Newton resident Peter Harrington.
Some gun violence prevention activists, however, warned that an all-out ban could legally backfire on the city.
“While a ban might have emotional appeal, it’s a bad idea,” said Janet Goldenberg, who is on the Massachusetts Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence’s Board of Directors. “It creates the potential for the Supreme Court to overturn not just this ban, but restrictive zoning on gun shops.”
So, this was ultimately a debate a over tactics and strategy, not about the morality of trying to make it as difficult as possible for folks to exercise a civil right. And in the end, the city council decided that they didn’t want the town to turn into a Second Amendment test case for the Supreme Court.
Newton Mayor Ruthanne Fuller agreed with Goldenberg’s sentiment, sharing the following statement with NewsCenter 5:
“In light of the implications of the Second Amendment and the current legal landscape, the opinion of our city’s law department — after extensive analysis with our state and federal partners and input from advocacy groups, including the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence and Everytown for Gun Safety — is that a complete ban would likely be held unconstitutional by a court of law.”
The Newton City Council voted 6-0, with one abstention, against an all-out on gun stores in the city Monday night, deciding that zoning laws are a smarter way to manage the issue.
Gun control groups like Everytown and Giffords are pretty good about playing the long game. They’re willing to settle for taking a smaller bite out of the Bill of Rights if they think it increases the odds of their anti-gun ideology being upheld by the courts, and this was definitely the smart move from a legal perspective.
As the pro-gun control website The Trace reported in 2018, the strategy of using zoning laws to prohibit gun stores without imposing an outright ban has become increasingly popular on the Left, in large part because courts have declined to intervene.
Piscataway, a suburb of New Brunswick, currently does not have a single licensed gun dealer, according to listings by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. A resolution passed by the Town Council on June 14 is intended to keep it that way. The resolution bans gun stores from opening within 1,000 feet of schools, parks, health care facilities, and other sensitive locations. While the new zoning law does not explicitly forbid gun stores from opening in the suburb, it makes dealers subject to conditions that almost no location meets.
It’s the first such law in the state, and one of a scattering across the country: there are 24 localities in California with these location restrictions, and another two in New York, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which tracks gun laws nationally.
“There’s a growing concern about gun violence and the federal government’s inability to do anything comprehensive,” said Steven Cahn, the council member who drafted the ordinance. “The point is to demonstrate that as local officials, we’re not helpless. We can use our authority. Hopefully, other communities will do something similar.”
One legal expert suggested the Piscataway ordinance is a progressive version of targeted regulations on abortion providers, also known as TRAP laws, common in deeply conservative states. Those laws don’t ban abortion, per se, but they do place burdensome conditions on facilities that perform the procedure, making it impossible for many clinics to remain in operation.
“States have passed a lot of laws that make women travel really long distances to get an abortion, which is a constitutional right,” said Allison Anderman, an attorney with the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. To successfully challenge Piscataway’s law, as pro-choice activists have done with TRAP laws, a gun purchaser would have to argue that the restriction puts an impermissible burden on his or her Second Amendment rights with no public safety benefit.
The Supreme Court turned away a challenge to a similar ordinance in Alameda County, California back in May of 2018, but that doesn’t mean they’d do the same today. Of course, in order for the Supreme Court to hear a case, you need to have a lawsuit, and it remains to be seen if the owner of Newton Firearms will sue the city over its new restrictions.
Unfortunately, until the courts are willing to step in, we’re likely to continue to see this strategy utilized to bar residents from being able to acquire a firearm legally and locally. Newton, Massachusetts is the latest anti-gun locality to adopt this tactic, but they won’t be the last.