Strict New York gun law struck down by Supreme Court
The Supreme Court split 6-3 on party lines Thursday in a ruling that says New York unconstitutionally restricted who gets to carry a concealed weapon in public.
“In District of Columbia v. Heller, and McDonald v. Chicago, we recognized that the Second and Fourteenth Amendments protect the right of an ordinary, law-abiding citizen to possess a handgun in the home for self-defense,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the majority. “In this case, petitioners and respondents agree that ordinary, law-abiding citizens have a similar right to carry handguns publicly for their self-defense. We too agree, and now hold, consistent with Heller and McDonald, that the Second and Fourteenth Amendments protect an individual’s right to carry a handgun for self-defense outside the home.”
All three Democratic-appointed justices dissented, calling the ruling a major obstacle in the movement to address gun violence.
“Many States have tried to address some of the dangers of gun violence just described by passing laws that limit, in various ways, who may purchase, carry, or use firearms of different kinds,” Justice Stephen Breyer wrote, joined by joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. “The Court today severely burdens States’ efforts to do so.”
President Joe Biden called the ruling contrary to “both common sense and the Constitution, and should deeply trouble us all.” He noted his executive actions to prevent gun violence and called on Americans to rally for gun safety.
“I urge states to continue to enact and enforce commonsense laws to make their citizens and communities safer from gun violence,” Biden said in a statement. “As the late Justice Scalia recognized, the Second Amendment is not absolute. For centuries, states have regulated who may purchase or possess weapons, the types of weapons they may use, and the places they may carry those weapons. And the courts have upheld these regulations. I call on Americans across the country to make their voices heard on gun safety. Lives are on the line.”
The ruling is the first of its kind in over a decade and comes amid renewed attention to gun laws across the country following the murder of 19 children and two school teachers in the deadliest mass shooting of the year.
For the last century, New York has used the Sullivan Law’s “proper cause” requirement to decide if gun owners qualify for a concealed-carry permit. New York allows licensing authorities to use discretion when considering applications to carry concealed firearms. Laws like New York’s are referred to as “may” laws because a state may issue a license if the person shows good cause. Some states do not allow this discretion and instead have “shall” laws. In other states like Texas, the permitting process is being abandoned altogether.
The court’s decision strikes down the “may” laws, but keeps in place the “shall” laws. Justice Brett Kavanaugh — joined by Chief Justice John Roberts — addresses this issue specifically in a concurring opinion.
“The Court’s decision does not prohibit States from imposing licensing requirements for carrying a handgun for self-defense,” the Trump appointee wrote. “In particular, the Court’s decision does not affect the existing licensing regimes — known as “shall-issue” regimes — that are employed in 43 States.”
Robert Nash and Brandon Koch brought the underlying case after New York authorities decided that their self-defense needs did not amount to proper cause to justify concealed-carry licenses. Joined by the New York State Rifle & Pistol Association, Nash and Koch took their fight to Washington after a federal judge found the law constitutional, and the Second Circuit affirmed.
Key to the debate has been a specific line in the Second Amendment — “to keep and bear arms” — and how it is applied to carrying guns in public. Though the Supreme Court’s 2008 decision in District of Columbia v. Heller weighed how these rights were applied within the home, there was no precedent for how the constitutional right is applied in public.
Both the state and the open-carry proponents faced stern questioning from the justices during oral arguments in November, but the court nevertheless seemed to lean toward an expansive reading of the Second Amendment.
Gun safety groups are concerned that the decision could lead to more gun violence. An amicus brief submitted by social scientists and public health researchers — which was cited by the justices during oral arguments — provided scientific evidence to prove that more restrictive gun laws prevent violent crime.
The court’s ruling gets rid of the two-step framework that has been adopted by lower courts since Heller and instead adopts an approach championed by conservative judges focused on text, history and tradition.
“To justify its regulation, the government may not simply posit that the regulation promotes an important interest,” Thomas wrote. “Rather, the government must demonstrate that the regulation is consistent with this Nation’s historical tradition of firearm regulation. Only if a firearm regulation is consistent with this Nation’s historical tradition may a court conclude that the individual’s conduct falls outside the Second Amendment’s ‘unqualified command.’”
Breyer says the majority opinion ignores the severity of the nation’s gun violence problem, bringing up mass shootings among other examples of the dangers guns can cause. Making clear, however, that it is not as simple to say that guns are bad, Breyer said the lawful use of firearms needs to be balanced against the dangers of gun violence.
“Balancing these lawful uses against the dangers of firearms is primarily the responsibility of elected bodies, such as legislatures,” Breyer wrote. “It requires consideration of facts, statistics, expert opinions, predictive judgments, relevant values, and a host of other circumstances, which together make decisions about how, when, and where to regulate guns more appropriately legislative work.”
Justice Samuel Alito criticized Breyer for acknowledging recent mass shootings within his dissent. Alito said the New York law was in place when a recent mass shooting in a supermarket happened, so clearly it didn’t prevent that type of violence.
“Why, for example, does the dissent think it is relevant to recount the mass shootings that have occurred in recent years,” Alito wrote. “Does the dissent think that laws like New York’s prevent or deter such atrocities? Will a person bent on carrying out a mass shooting be stopped if he knows that it is illegal to carry a handgun outside the home? And how does the dissent account for the fact that one of the mass shootings near the top of its list took place in Buffalo? The New York law at issue in this case obviously did not stop that perpetrator.”
Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg said the court’s ruling undermined public safety in New York and around the country.
“This decision severely undermines public safety not just in New York City, but around the country,” Bragg said in a statement. “While the Court has now made it more difficult to limit the number of guns in our communities, I am committed to doing everything in my power to fight for the safety everyone in this city deserves, and we have been preparing for this decision for weeks.”
Bragg said despite the ruling New York still has some of the toughest firearm laws in the country.
“The Supreme Court may have made our work harder, but we will only redouble our efforts to develop new solutions to end the epidemic of gun violence and ensure lasting public safety,” Bragg said.