Stay up to date with notifications from The Independent

Notifications can be managed in browser preferences.

How a 1911 society crime created the New York gun law that SCOTUS just struck down

The Supreme Court struck down a New York gun law in a Thursday ruling expected to directly impact half a dozen other populous states

Johanna Chisholm
Thursday 23 June 2022 19:59 BST
Supreme Court Guns
Supreme Court Guns (Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

The Supreme Court struck down a restrictive New York gun law in a major ruling for gun rights on Thursday, prompting politicians from across the state to begin angrily voicing their concerns that the ruling will make it easier to carry handguns in public in the midst of a “national reckoning on gun violence”.

“This decision may have opened an additional river feeding the sea of gun violence, but we will do everything we can to dam it,” said New York City Mayor Eric Adams, while the state’s governor, Kathy Hochul, said it was “outrageous”.

In their 6-3 decision, the court determined that New York’s Sullivan Law – which stipulates that to carry a concealed handgun in public, a person applying for a licence has to show “proper cause” – was unconstitutional, a ruling that will likely have rippling consequences in major cities across the country.

But while politicians and gun rights activists of 2022 have the recourse of airing their displeasure with the decision on one of the many social media forums at their thumb’s disposal, the politicians of yore who originally drafted the bill more than 100 years ago did not. And while modern audiences have viewed the 1911 law as one of the most restrictive on the books, when the bill was originally proposed, one of its original authors thought that it didn’t go far enough.

“In my own experience, I saw many store keepers who obtained permits to protect themselves against hold-ups,” wrote George Petit Lebrun, the author of the bill who didn’t get the pride and joy of bestowing his namesake on the bill, but rather worked behind the scenes alongside Manhattan state senator Timothy Sullivan to draft what would come to be known as New York’s Sullivan Law. “When I saw them, they were dead, beaten to the draw by the bandit, who already had his finger on the trigger.”

Mr Lebrun, who worked in the coroner’s office from 1898 to 1934 in New York City, and Mr Sullivan, known as “Big Tim” or “Big Feller”, became unlikely partners in the path to passing one of the country’s most restrictive gun laws.

While Mr Sullivan was one of the city’s most powerful politicians in the first decade of the 20th century, Mr Lebrun worked tirelessly as a coroner in the city, handling more than 100,000 deaths in his 36-year tenure.

The two came to know each other after finding they shared a common goal, albeit for entirely different reasons: keeping guns out of the hands of “irresponsible persons”.

Mr Sullivan, who represented the Bowery and Lower East Side, a region rife with gangs, told Mr Lebrun that he’d “do anything to stop those shootings by gangsters,” according to the latter’s memoir.

For Mr Lebrun, he found himself drawn to the cause of drafting a law to create more restrictive rules around who could and could not get and carry a gun from a more personal vendetta.

On Jan 23 1911, Mr Lebrun found himself responding to a call about the body of a man who had been shot at a location on East 21st Street who died under circumstances that seemed eerily familiar to him, The Daily Beast first reported.

The man was 43-year-old David Graham Phillips, and he was fatally shot by Fitzhugh Coyle Goldsborough, a Harvard graduate who had begun stalking the up and coming novelist without ever having met him. Goldborough had shot Phillips five times outside of the Princeton Club before turning the gun on himself and dying by suicide.

Mr Lebrun arrived in the lobby of the Princeton Club and realised that only five years earlier, he’d been tending to the dead body of the famed architect  – Stanford White – who had lived at the same address where Mr Phillips’ prostrate body now lay.

Mr White also suffered an untimely death, he was gunned down while sitting in the old rooftop theatre of Madison Square Garden, one of the many building’s he’s credited with creating. It was ultimately Mr Phillips death that prompted Mr Lebrun to feel motivated to do something about the city’s gun problem.

“Although I knew Phillips only slightly, I was deeply shocked by his senseless death,” LeBrun wrote, according to the Daily Beast. “He had many years ahead of him and might have reached the greatness and brilliance critics were predicting.”

Shortly after, Mr Lebrun tapped Mr Sullivan to address the issue of creating a new law different from the one in existence, which, as he wrote: “was a perfect example of attacking a problem backwards”. The new law, he suggested, should instead “[prevent] the easy purchase of firearms rather than slightly slap a man on the wrist for carrying a pistol around.”

Sullivan, known to be a man who preferred to work in the background, reportedly gave Lebrun the greenlight to “draft a bill” the politician liked. He’d fulfill his end of the bargain by introducing it to his peers.

Lebrun would go onto draft the bill that would eventually become Sullivan’s Law, a piece of writing that passed only five months after Big Tim introduced it in the chamber. He would go on to withstand numerous challenges from its passing on 31 August 1911 till it was finally deemed unconstitutional by a Conservative majority bench on 23 June 2022, just a couple months shy of its 111th birthday.

“I outlined the bill I had in mind and told them that if such a law had been in force, then the insane musician could not have bought the pistol used to kill the writer,” LeBrun said wrote in his memoir, remembering the brutal murder of Phillips by his stalker.

Now, with about a quarter of the US population living in states expected to be affected by the Sullivan Law being deemed unconstitutional, there are millions of lives who will be similarly unprotected as Phillips and White once were as the rules of the state shift back to what they were more than a hundreds years ago. People seeking a concealed weapon licence now need only pass a federal background check and not be in possession of a felony record.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in