Washington: A divided US Supreme Court struck down a New York law that limited who could carry a handgun in public, issuing a landmark ruling that could mean more guns on the streets of big cities even as officials vowed to try limit the impact.
The 6-3 ruling marks the first time the court has said the Second Amendment protects gun rights outside the home. New York was one of at least six states — along with California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Maryland and Hawaii — with laws that prevented most people from legally carrying a handgun.
“We know of no other constitutional right that an individual may exercise only after demonstrating to government officers some special need,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the court. The three liberal justices dissented.
The decision follows a series of mass shootings, including rampages that left a total of more than 30 people dead at a Buffalo, New York, grocery store and an Uvalde, Texas, elementary school. The Senate is moving toward approving new gun-safety measures in response to those killings. President Joe Biden called on states to keep passing “commonsense” gun laws.
Officials in states and some of the nation’s largest cities were grappling with the effect the ruling will have on public safety and said they would review how to define the “sensitive areas” where the court said guns can still be banned.
At a briefing Thursday, New York City Police Commissioner Keechant Sewell said the ruling doesn’t mean gun owners can immediately carry their weapons in the open without proper permits.
“If you have a premise permit, it does not automatically convert to a carry permit,” Sewell said. “If you carry a gun illegally in New York City, you will be arrested. Nothing changes today.”
The ruling was the court’s biggest gun-rights decision in more than a decade. It underscored the impact of the three justices appointed by former President Donald Trump: Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett, all of whom joined the majority.
In a concurring opinion, Kavanaugh and Chief Justice John Roberts said the ruling didn’t prevent states from requiring handgun owners to get a carry license. Kavanaugh said the decision didn’t affect so-called “shall-issue” systems in dozens of states, where licenses must be issued to anyone who meets set criteria.
“Those shall-issue regimes may require a license applicant to undergo fingerprinting, a background check, a mental health records check, and training in firearms handling and in laws regarding the use of force, among other possible requirements,” Kavanaugh wrote.
New York risk
Writing for the dissenters, Justice Stephen Breyer said the ruling would “severely burden” efforts by states to curb rising gun violence, now the mostly likely cause of death among US children and adolescents. Gun-related deaths topped 45,000 in 2020, according to federal figures.
“The question of firearm regulation presents a complex problem — one that should be solved by legislatures rather than courts,” Breyer wrote in an opinion joined by Justices Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor.
Breyer listed more than a dozen recent mass shootings, including the attacks in Buffalo and Uvalde. That drew a rebuttal from one of the justices in the majority, Samuel Alito.
“How does the dissent account for the fact that one of the mass shootings near the top of its list took place in Buffalo?” Alito wrote. “The New York law at issue in this case obviously did not stop that perpetrator.”
New York City Mayor Eric Adams said in a statement the ruling “will put New Yorkers at further risk of gun violence.”
“We will work together to mitigate the risks this decision will create once it is implemented, as we cannot allow New York to become the Wild West,” Adams said.
New York Governor Kathy Hochul called the ruling “frightening” and said it takes away the state’s right to protect its citizens. She said she expects to hold a special Legislative session in July to discuss the state’s gun laws, particularly looking at restrictions on sensitive locations.
Everytown for Gun Safety, which advocates gun-safety measures, is backed by Michael Bloomberg, founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent company Bloomberg LP. The group filed a brief at the Supreme Court supporting the New York restrictions.
The National Rifle Association celebrated the victory. “Today’s ruling is a watershed win for good men and women all across America and is the result of a decades-long fight the NRA has led,” NRA Chief Executive Officer Wayne LaPierre said. “The right to self-defense and to defend your family and loved ones should not end at your home.”
Shares of gun makers and distributors rose to session highs Thursday after the ruling. Smith & Wesson Brands Inc. jumped as much as 9.6%, while Sturm Ruger & Co. climbed 4.4% and Ammo Inc. advanced 4.4%.
The Supreme Court’s decision comes the same day that the US Senate will advance toward a final vote the most extensive gun-safety package in three decades. Final action could come today. It would improve background checks for younger firearms buyers and provides federal funds to combat mental illness and secure schools.
The Supreme Court had been largely silent on the Second Amendment since rulings in 2008 and 2010 established that the government generally can’t bar handguns in the home for self-defense.
Thomas laid out a tough new test for gun restrictions to meet under the Second Amendment, saying courts should look to constitutional text and the nation’s history — and shouldn’t defer to legislative determinations.
“While that judicial deference to legislative interest balancing is understandable — and, elsewhere, appropriate — it is not deference that the Constitution demands here,” Thomas wrote.
Thomas said that “apart from a few late-19th century outlier jurisdictions, American governments simply have not broadly prohibited the public carry of commonly used firearms for personal defense.”
Breyer disputed that characterization, saying that “the historical examples of regulations similar to New York’s licensing regime are legion.”
The New York law required people to show “proper cause” to get a concealed-carry license. Although the statute didn’t define that phrase, New York state court rulings said applicants needed to show a need for self-protection that distinguished them from the general public. The law gave local officials broad discretion to decide whether the standard has been met.
Opponents said the practical effect was to leave the vast majority of people in the state without the right to carry a handgun in public. The state generally forbids open carry.
The court heard a challenge by the NRA-affiliated New York State Rifle & Pistol Association and residents Robert Nash and Brandon Koch of Rensselaer County. The two men both got licenses to carry handguns in some circumstances, including hunting and target practice, but were denied an unrestricted right to carry.
Biden’s administration joined New York in defending the law. They argued that gun-carry restrictions have a long pedigree, both in the US and in the English law that provided the foundation for the Second Amendment.
The case is New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen, 20-843. –Bloomberg
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