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Supreme Court bolsters right to carry handgun in public

In a 6-3 ruling, justices decide states can't require a “special need” to have a firearm in order to carry one outside the home

People hold signs and pictures of family members killed in shootings during a demonstration in November by victims of gun violence in front of the Supreme Court as arguments begin in a major case on gun rights on a New York law that imposes limits on the carrying of guns outside the home.
People hold signs and pictures of family members killed in shootings during a demonstration in November by victims of gun violence in front of the Supreme Court as arguments begin in a major case on gun rights on a New York law that imposes limits on the carrying of guns outside the home. (Photo by Joshua Roberts/Getty Images)

The Supreme Court extended the Second Amendment right to carry a handgun outside the home for the first time Thursday, in a 6-3 decision that struck down New York’s restrictions on concealed carry licenses.

The opinion, written by Justice Clarence Thomas, found that the “Second and Fourteenth Amendments protect an individual’s right to carry a handgun for self-defense outside the home.”

States such as New York could not require an applicant display a “special need” to have a firearm in order to carry one outside the home, the court ruled, compared to licensing schemes in 43 states where the government issues licenses to carry based on objective criteria.

“We know of no other constitutional right that an individual may exercise only after demonstrating to government officers some special need,” Thomas wrote. “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,” Thomas wrote.

Thomas was joined by five other conservative justices in a ruling that expanded the scope of the right to bear arms, the first major gun rights decision in more than a decade. The decision also comes the same day the Senate may advance the first bill that includes gun control elements in more than two decades.

The ruling will reverberate most in states that have similar laws that require applicants to show additional special need, which the opinion listed as California, the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, and New Jersey.

Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh wrote a concurring opinion focused on those states that have “may issue” permit regimes, compared to 43 states that have “shall issue” regimes that only deny permits in specific cases.

New York and other “may issue” states were “constitutionally problematic because it grants open-ended discretion to licensing officials and authorizes licenses only for those applicants who can show some special need apart from self-defense,” Kavanaugh wrote.

Kavanaugh wrote that New York and other states like New Jersey and California can pass new laws that follow “objective” rules for issuance of permits and do not allow local officials any discretion.

Congressional reaction

Republican members of Congress generally praised the decision. House Judiciary ranking member Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, tweeted: “Big win for the Second Amendment and freedom!”

Democrats decried the ruling as making the country less safe. California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a longtime advocate of gun control laws, tweeted that “the Supreme Court’s conservative majority has weakened gun safety laws in eight states covering a quarter of the U.S. population. This decision could put lives at risk.”

And Senate Judiciary Chairman Richard J. Durbin of Illinois called the decision “an invitation for more gun deaths and chaos in America’s neighborhoods.”

“This decision makes it all the more important for Congress to take actionable steps to protect our kids and communities from this nation’s gun violence epidemic,” Durbin said.

Some legal experts predicted parts of the opinion could spur legal challenges to other gun laws. Eric Ruben, an assistant professor at Southern Methodist University and a Brennan Center fellow, called it “massively consequential.”

“Gun rights advocates will sue over restrictions on large-capacity magazines, safe storage requirements, red flag laws, etc. in places where those issues have already been resolved,” Ruben tweeted. “The flood gates are open.”

The majority opinion also rejected arguments made by New York that it had a legitimate interest in protecting “sensitive places,” including New York City. The majority of the court also found the state could not rely on many gun control laws passed in the last 150 years to justify them today.

“Put simply, there is no historical basis for New York to effectively declare the island of Manhattan a ‘sensitive place’ simply because it is crowded and protected generally by the New York City Police Department,” Thomas wrote.

In the case, a pair of New York gun owners challenged the state’s rules for issuing concealed carry permits for handguns. The two petitioners argued that the state’s rules violated the Constitution because they made it almost impossible to obtain the needed license to carry a handgun in public.

Thursday’s decision expands on the right to carry a gun for self-defense in the home, first established in cases like District of Columbia v. Heller in 2008 and McDonald v. Chicago in 2010.

“Nothing in the Second Amendment’s text draws a home/public distinction with respect to the right to keep and bear arms,” Thomas wrote.

Liberals dissent

Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote a dissent, joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, that argued the decision would severely limit states’ ability to address gun violence, which took more than 45,000 lives nationwide in 2020. Breyer cited a series of mass shootings that occurred across the country, including the one in Uvalde, Texas, where 19 children and two teachers at an elementary school were killed.

“Many States have tried to address some of the dangers of gun violence just described by passing laws that limit…who may purchase, carry, or use firearms of different kinds. The Court today severely burdens States’ efforts to do so,” Breyer wrote.

Breyer also wrote the decision relied on an incorrect view of history and the majority opinion ignored historical restrictions on gun ownership that contradicted its views.

President Joe Biden said he was “disappointed” in the ruling, but he urged states “to continue to enact and enforce commonsense laws to make their citizens and communities safer from gun violence.”

“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,” Biden said. “And the courts have upheld these regulations.”

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul criticized the opinion on Twitter and said she would consider calling a special session of the state legislature to pass new legislation.

“It is 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,” Hochul tweeted.

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