Court Battles

Supreme Court expands gun rights in major Second Amendment ruling

The Supreme Court on Thursday struck down a New York state law that made it difficult to obtain a permit to carry a handgun outside the home, marking the justices’ first major opinion on Second Amendment rights in more than a decade.

The 6-3 decision to invalidate New York’s law will almost certainly render unconstitutional similar restrictions in more than a half dozen other states that give licensing officials wide discretion over concealed carry permitting.

The ruling broke along ideological lines, with the court’s six conservatives joining a majority opinion by Justice Clarence Thomas, who wrote that the Second Amendment protects “an individual’s right to carry a handgun for self-defense outside the home.”

The New York law at issue required concealed carry permit applicants to demonstrate a special need for a license, beyond a basic desire for self-defense. In striking down the law, the court’s conservatives ruled that the so-called proper-cause requirement prevented “law-abiding citizens with ordinary self-defense needs from exercising their right to keep and bear arms.”

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

The ruling’s broad sweep amounts to a complete overhaul of the court’s Second Amendment doctrine and is expected to call into question a wide range of other gun laws, according to legal experts.

The court’s three liberals, in dissent, accused the conservative majority of failing to consider “the potentially deadly consequences of its decision.”

The ruling comes after recent mass shootings reignited a wrenching debate over how to balance a constitutional right to bear arms with Americans’ concerns for personal safety in a country with more than 390 million privately owned firearms.

The Senate is set to hold a procedural vote Thursday on a bipartisan gun reform package crafted in response to those shootings that includes measures to close the “boyfriend loophole,” support red flag laws and bolster background checks for those younger than 21.

Thursday’s case arose after two New York residents were denied unrestricted carry licenses. Backed by an affiliate of the National Rifle Association, the applicants sued the licensing officials and, after losing in the lower courts, filed their ultimately successful appeal to the Supreme Court.

The decision could hamper efforts to pass modern gun control measures. According to Adam Winkler, a professor at the UCLA School of Law, the ruling means that for a gun law to be constitutionally permissible, it must be consistent with historical patterns of gun regulation.

“A law like a red flag law — part of the Senate compromise — is a new modern innovation,” he said. “There is no historical tradition of taking guns away from people who are in crisis.”

“Closing the ‘boyfriend loophole’ is now called into question by this opinion, because there’s no historical regulation of prohibiting boyfriends who engage in domestic violence from possessing firearms,” he added.

The opinion builds on the court’s last major gun rights decision more than a decade ago. In the 2008 case District of Columbia v. Heller, a 5-4 court ruled that the Constitution protects an individual’s right to keep a gun in the home for self-defense. The court in Heller noted that the Second Amendment is “not unlimited,” but left unanswered what restrictions are constitutionally allowed.

Although the ruling Thursday broadly protects the right of law-abiding citizens to carry a gun outside the home, the majority left some legal gray area when it comes to possessing guns in what it deemed “sensitive places.”

“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. But underscoring that a more granular definition of sensitive places would be left for future cases, Thomas added: “Like Heller, we do not undertake an exhaustive historical analysis of the full scope of the Second Amendment.”

Justice Stephen Breyer, in a dissent joined by his two fellow liberal members, criticized what they depicted as the conservatives’ overly rigid adherence to historical analogy.

“As technological progress pushes our society ever further beyond the bounds of the Framers’ imaginations, attempts at ‘analogical reasoning’ will become increasingly tortured,” he wrote. “In short, a standard that relies solely on history is unjustifiable and unworkable.”

The Department of Justice, on behalf of the Biden administration, had argued in support of New York and urged the court to defer to the longstanding practice of allowing legislatures to place reasonable limits on firearms to protect public safety.

The court’s liberals, in dissent, criticized the majority for reducing states’ ability to stem gun violence, noting that in 2020 more than 45,000 Americans were killed by firearms.

“The primary difference between the Court’s view and mine is that I believe the Amendment allows States to take account of the serious problems posed by gun violence that I have just described. I fear that the Court’s interpretation ignores these significant dangers and leaves States without the ability to address them,” wrote Breyer, joined by Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor.

Updated at 12:40 p.m.

Tags Clarence Thomas District of Columbia v. Heller Gun control gun deaths Gun reform Gun rights gun violence Mass shootings New York Second Amendment Supreme Court

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