By a 6-3 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court today struck down a New York law that put limits on where gun owners could publicly carry rifles and pistols.
The stricken law, which had been in place in New York for roughly a century, required licensed handgun owners who want to carry their weapons outside their homes to demonstrate a special need for doing so.
Brought by two Rensselaer County gun enthusiasts who had been denied such special-needs permits, the challenge to the New York law, New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen, had been shot down by a federal district and Second Circuit appeals court.
The challengers are licensed gun owners whose permits let them carry weapons outside their home but only for purposes like target shooting or hunting. Both men claimed they needed to be able to carry weapons in public in order to defend themselves.
Their original lawsuit targeted officials who had denied their applications for special needs permits. The challenge was also brought in the name of the New York State Rifle & Pistol Association Inc.
The vote to reverse the lower courts’ rulings fell along familiar lines with the Supreme Court’s six conservative justices voting to overturn the New York law and the court’s three liberals dissenting. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the majority opinion.
Today’s decision builds on a 2008 case, District of Columbia v. Heller, in which the court struck down a Washington, D.C., law restricting handgun ownership. In that case, the high court ruled that the Second Amendment includes the right of individuals to bear arms for self-defense. It also builds on a 2010 Chicago case, McDonald v. Chicago, in which the court said the 14th Amendment also protects individuals’ rights to own guns.
“New York’s proper-cause requirement violates the Fourteenth Amendment by preventing law-abiding citizens with ordinary self-defense needs from exercising their Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms in public for self-defense,” Thomas wrote.
In a concurring opinion, Justice Brett Kavanaugh held that today’s ruling leaves open the possibility of some state or local restrictions of guns. He contrasted so-called shall-issue restrictions with may-issue restrictions.
May-issue restrictions like the stricken New York law put the burden of proof on the gun owner to show why he or she should be allowed to carry a weapon. Shall-issue laws require a government to show why a permit should not be granted.
“The Court’s decision does not prohibit States from imposing licensing requirements for carrying a handgun for self-defense. In particular, the Court’s decision does not affect the existing licensing regimes—known as “shall-issue” regimes—that are employed in 43 States,” Kavanaugh wrote.
In a dissent joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, Justice Stephen Breyer disagreed with the majority’s methodology in reaching its decision to overturn lower-court rulings upholding the law and criticized the majority for reaching its conclusions with no evidence to back them. Citing growing numbers of citizens killed by gun-wielding assailants, Breyer also pointed to recent mass shootings as a compelling reason to think twice about easing restrictions on gun ownership and use.
“Mass shootings are just one part of the problem,” Breyer wrote. “Easy access to firearms can also make many other aspects of American life more dangerous. Consider, for example, the effect of guns on road rage. In 2021, an average of 44 people each month were shot and either killed or wounded in road rage incident.”
Hochul says New York has been anticipating today’s decision and has been preparing for it. With the high court’s ruling only “minutes old,” she was not yet ready to fully spell out how New York might attempt to counter what she termed “a decision which is frightful in its scope,” but she promised that action will come soon.
“We feared this day would come and it came,” the governor said. “We are reading the language as we speak. We’ve been preparing, but we have been working with a team of experts, legal experts from all over this country … to make sure that we are prepared. I’m prepared to call the Legislature back into session to deal with this. We’ve been in contact with the leadership. We’re just looking at dates.”