The conviction rate of New York’s Queens County district attorney’s Office is about to go up thanks to New York Jets defensive lineman Quinnen Williams. Williams, the third overall pick in the 2019 National Football League draft, was arrested at La Guardia Airport for gun possession on March 5.
For those who merely peruse the headlines, this makes Williams just one more misbehaving NFL player. While the likeliest result is a plea bargain that will avoid a felony conviction, Williams is still subject to a fine, possible jail time, and likely some sort of discipline from the NFL for code-of-conduct violation. Even if he becomes an NFL great, the 22-year-old former University of Alabama standout will also be remembered for being hauled into a Queens Criminal Court for violating New York City’s gun laws.
But there’s more to the story than that. Like most of the hundreds of others nabbed at either La Guardia or John F. Kennedy International Airport for similar violations, Williams is not a criminal in any normal understanding of the term. Nor was his gun unlicensed. Williams wasn’t trying to sneak his Glock 19 handgun through security. Instead, the incident occurred at the checkout counter, where he reportedly told that agent that his unloaded weapon was in a bag. The firearm, for which Williams was not carrying ammunition, is licensed in his home state of Alabama. But, as is standard procedure, as soon as the weapon’s presence was made known, the TSA was notified and, once it was ascertained that Williams did not have a New York license, he was arrested and immediately became fodder for the city’s tabloid press.
Ignorance of the law is no excuse. Anyone who has spent any time in New York knows that the city rigorously enforces its draconian gun laws. Moreover, as the National Rifle Association advises, when flying, gun owners must have a legal permit for their weapons both from the flight’s origin and its destination. Williams, who has been a member of one of the city’s two NFL franchises since last April (though both actually practice and play in New Jersey), should have been aware of this. If anything, his status as a well-known, wealthy football player increases the odds that he will not be let off with a lesser charge.
But the case also illustrates the dishonest nature of the way we discuss gun legislation. Advocates of even stricter gun laws that would ban certain types of firearms or ammunition — such as former New York City mayor (and failed presidential candidate) Michael Bloomberg, who has financed anti-gun campaigns around the country — argue that their passage is a matter of life and death. Yet preventing people who legally own unloaded firearms from safely transporting them isn’t about saving lives and preventing crimes, let alone the mass shootings that generally drive the conversation about gun-control efforts. Such laws are drafted and enforced to thwart legal gun ownership and the safe use of firearms. It is no surprise that Williams didn’t have a New York license; such permits are difficult if not impossible to obtain.
Last fall, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments about one of New York’s most absurd gun regulations. In the case of New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. New York, the city’s attempt to prevent its residents from transporting legally owned guns to firing ranges outside city limits was at issue. The decision about the since-rescinded law will indicate just how serious the high court is about defending the Second Amendment against attempts by localities to render it meaningless. While Quinnen Williams’s case — and those of the many others who have been arrested under similar circumstances — won’t likely be impacted by the decision, the implications for other restrictions on legally owned firearms is obvious.
The federal government, which is responsible for air safety, has good reason to place restrictions on the way guns are stored on flights. But it’s far from clear that most cases of arrests relating to guns at airports have anything to do with preventing hijackings or shootings on airplanes. A legally owned weapon, which is unloaded and stored safely, ought not to be a problem. But as is the case with so many of the restrictions put on gun ownership in localities such as New York, the point isn’t safety, but to make those who wish to possess firearms realize that their ownership in deep-blue cities and states isn’t worth the legal hassle.
In New York or Chicago, the legal right to “bear arms” for self-defense is now so limited as to be rendered theoretical. These regulations have little impact on the traffic in and use of illegal guns by criminals. The laws are mainly concerned with harassing those, like Williams, who commit oversights or are too foolish or ignorant to understand that owning weapons in the city makes them targets for enforcement of arbitrary regulations. This isn’t a secret. New York City police sergeant Damon Martin, who runs the police intelligence unit tracking illegal guns, acknowledged in an interview with NPR last December that his work is made easier by the virtual impossibility for citizens to get permits. According to Martin, the cops know whom to go after in efforts to confiscate weapons. “People who have a gun license in, let’s say, Georgia, and they relocated up here. Your gun license is no good!”
With its 2008 decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, the Supreme Court reaffirmed the plain meaning of the Second Amendment: that the right enumerated in its text is one that belongs to individuals. While the court is understandably reluctant to undermine the principle of federalism and respectful of the rights of states and cities to write their own gun regulations, it remains to be seen if, in future cases, it will eventually take up the question of whether laws whose primary purpose appears to be to treat legal gun owners as criminal pariahs are compatible with the Constitution.