A Connecticut gun advocacy group’s challenge to delays in the processing of firearms permit applications that occurred in some towns during the COVID-19 pandemic may get new life following oral arguments in an appeal in the case.
The Connecticut Citizens Defense League (CCDL) and a number of other plaintiffs first sued the cities of Hartford, New Haven, Bridgeport, and Waterbury in August 2021, alleging that delays in pistol permit application processing that occurred in those cities during the COVID-19 pandemic “slowed to the point of an effective shut down” and resulted in residents losing their Second Amendment rights.
The claim relies on Connecticut’s requirements for obtaining a pistol permit, which first require would-be gun owners to be fingerprinted by law enforcement in the city they reside in before they can apply for a municipal firearms permit. A municipal firearms permit is required to obtain a state-issued firearms permit, which is required to legally purchase and carry a firearm for personal defense.
Other plaintiffs in the case include Orel Johnson, of Hartford; Shaquanna Williams, of New Haven; Anne Cordero, of Bridgeport; and Jamie Eason, of Waterbury; all of whom claimed delays in the permitting process prevented them from obtaining a firearm and thus violated their Second Amendment rights.
CCDL claimed monetary damages as a result of the delay, in part as a result of funds it diverted to obtain legal recourse that otherwise would have been spent on other activities, such as outreach.
In answering CCDL’s suit, the defendants claimed the plaintiffs failed to state a claim on which relief could be granted and also asserted they lacked standing. Additionally, they raised qualified immunity, the Supreme Court-created legal doctrine that grants government officials performing discretionary functions immunity from lawsuits against a plaintiff who alleges their rights have been harmed, unless they can show a clearly established right that a reasonable person should have known about.
“The actions and conducts of these defendants, to the extent they occurred as illegal were objectively reasonable under the circumstances of which they were aware, and they are entitled to qualified immunity from all liability as a result.” the defendants’ response reads. They also claim they are entitled to qualified immunity because their actions and conduct did not violate any “clearly established constitutional or federal statutory right of which they reasonably should have been aware.”
A U.S. District Court judge dismissed the case in March 2023, following motions to dismiss from defendants Jason Thody, Renee Dominguez, and Rebecca Garcia, respectively the police chiefs in Hartford, New Haven, and Bridgeport. Waterbury was dismissed from the case in 2022.
CCDL appealed the decision and a three judge panel of the Second Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals heard oral arguments on November 14. The issue of qualified immunity was again raised during arguments for both the plaintiffs and defendants.
Cameron Atkinson, the lawyer appearing for CCDL, was asked why the defendants’ qualified immunity defense failed. Atkinson raised claims the defendants’ actions had violated both the Second Amendment and the equal protection clause in the Fourteenth Amendment. The judicial panel noted that the context of the delay was the pandemic and asked whether it was clearly established that delaying someone’s rights equated to a violation of them.
Atkinson raised the Supreme Court’s ruling in DC v. Heller, a landmark 2008 ruling that established individuals have the right to bear arms for lawful purposes. Despite objections that the Heller decision did not rule on whether there is a period of time a government must comply with gun permitting processes before a person’s right is violated, Atkinson said he believed that the rulings in Heller and New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. Bruen, wherein the Supreme Court held that a New York law requiring individuals to demonstrate special need in order to obtain a concealed-carry pistol permit violated the Second Amendment, established a methodology and were well enough established for public officials to understand they could violate due process, invalidating a qualified immunity defense.
Lawyers for Thody and Garcia argued that the court should affirm the case’s dismissal, including on the grounds that the case lacked standing. A lawyer for Garcia argued the case was moot because the individual defendants had since been able to obtain gun permits and that outstanding claims of harm done to CCDL were covered by qualified immunity.