Washington — The Supreme Court on Thursday struck down a New York law that placed strict restrictions on carrying concealed firearms in public for self defense, finding its requirement that applicants seeking a concealed carry license demonstrate a special need for self-defense is unconstitutional.
In a 6-3 ruling, the Supreme Court reversed a lower court decision upholding New York’s 108-year-old law limiting who can obtain a license to carry a concealed handgun in public. Proponents of the measure warned that a ruling from the high court invalidating it could threaten gun restrictions in several states and lead to more firearms on city streets.
Justice Clarence Thomas delivered the majority opinion for the ideologically divided court, writing that New York’s “proper-cause requirement” prevented law-abiding citizens from exercising their Second Amendment right, and its licensing regime is unconstitutional.
“The constitutional right to bear arms in public for self-defense is not ‘a second-class right, subject to an entirely different body of rules than the other Bill of Rights guarantees,'” Thomas wrote. “We know of no other constitutional right that an individual may exercise only after demonstrating to government officers some special need. That is not how the First Amendment works when it comes to unpopular speech or the free exercise of religion. It is not how the Sixth Amendment works when it comes to a defendant’s right to confront the witnesses against him. And it is not how the Second Amendment works when it comes to public carry for self-defense.”
Writing in dissent for the liberal wing of the court, Justice Stephen Breyer noted the rise in gun violence in the U.S. and ubiquity of firearms, and warned that states working to pass more stringent firearms laws will be “severely” burdened by the court’s decision.
“In my view, when courts interpret the Second Amendment, it is constitutionally proper, indeed often necessary, for them to consider the serious dangers and consequences of gun violence that lead states to regulate firearms,” Breyer wrote. “The Second Circuit has done so and has held that New York’s law does not violate the Second Amendment. I would affirm that holding.”
The court’s decision comes on the heels of a string of mass shootings from mid-May to early June that jolted the nation and acted as a catalyst for Congress to again search for consensus on a legislative plan to curb gun violence. On May 14, a racist gunman went on a shooting rampage at a grocery store in Buffalo, N.Y., killing 10 people. Ten days later, 19 children and two teachers were massacred in a shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. Then, on June 1, four people were fatally shot at a medical building in Tulsa, Okla.
The ruling marks the first expansion of gun rights since 2008, when the Supreme Court recognized that the Second Amendment protects the right to keep firearms in the home for self-defense. The New York court battle was also the biggest Second Amendment case before the court since its 2008 decision, and a 2010 ruling that said the right to have a handgun in the home applies to the states. Gun rights supporters were hopeful the Supreme Court’s 6-3 conservative majority would recognize the Second Amendment protects the right to carry a firearm in public.
In a concurring opinion by Justice Brett Kavanaugh and joined by Chief Justice John Roberts, Kavanuagh noted the court’s decision does not prohibit states from imposing licensing requirements for carrying handguns, and leaves untouched existing regimes in 43 states. Instead, it only impacts more stringent licensing rules in affect in six states, including New York.
President Biden said in a statement he is “deeply disappointed by the decision,” and again urged states to enact changes to their laws to curb gun violence.
“This ruling contradicts both common sense and the Constitution, and should deeply trouble us all,” he said.
The New York permitting law at the crux of the dispute dates back to 1913 and requires residents seeking a license to carry a gun outside the home to demonstrate a “proper cause” to obtain one, which state courts have said is a “special need for self-protection.”
The two plaintiffs in the case, Robert Nash and Brandon Koch, each applied for carry licenses, but licensing officers denied their applications because they failed to establish proper cause to carry handguns in public. The two were granted “restricted” licenses to carry firearms for target shooting, hunting and outdoor activities.
Along with the New York State Rifle and Pistol Association, Nash and Koch challenged the constitutionality of New York’s prohibition on carrying handguns in public and the proper-cause requirement in 2018. A federal district court dismissed their suit, and the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the decision, leaving the licensing regime in place.
New York Governor Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, criticized the Supreme Court’s decision, saying on Twitter that it was “outrageous that at a moment of national reckoning on gun violence, the Supreme Court has recklessly struck down a New York law that limits those who can carry concealed weapons.”
New York City Mayor Eric Adams said the court’s ruling will “put New Yorkers at further risk of gun violence.” He pledged to conduct a “comprehensive review” of the approach to defining places where carrying firearms is banned, and to review the application process to ensure only those who are qualified can obtain a license to carry.
“This decision may have opened an additional river feeding the sea of gun violence, but we will do everything we can to dam it,” he said.
Former President Trump took credit for the court’s ruling, saying on his Truth Social platform, “Elections have consequences. I promised to appoint Judges and Justices that would stand up for the Constitution. Today, the Supreme Court upheld the Second Amendment Right of all Americans.”
Half of the states generally require a permit issued by the state in order to carry a concealed firearm in public, and of those, about six other states — California, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Rhode Island — allow a person to carry a firearm in public only if they have a need to do so. In those half-dozen states, government officials have discretion in denying licenses, even if the applicant satisfies the statutory criteria.
New York officials and the Biden administration, which urged the Supreme Court to uphold the law, warned the justices during oral arguments in November that invalidating the measure could have a domino effect, jeopardizing not only the states’ restrictions, but also others that limit public carry in places where people congregate, such as airports, arenas, churches and schools.
Some of the justices appeared concerned about how a broad ruling could impact restrictions imposed on places where large amounts of people gather. Roberts, for example, questioned whether a state or city could ban firearms at football stadiums or places where alcohol is served, while Justice Amy Coney Barrett asked about banning guns in “sensitive places,” such as Times Square on New Year’s Eve.
In a concurring opinion, Justice Samuel Alito criticized Breyer’s dissent for recounting recent mass shootings.
“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?” he wrote. “The New York law at issue in this case obviously did not stop that perpetrator.”
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