Legal

Supreme Court strikes down New York gun law along ideological lines

The 6-3 decision is the latest in a series of moves by the increasingly conservative high court to adopt a muscular interpretation of the right to bear arms.

The Supreme Court has ruled in favor of gun owners who want to carry their weapons outside the home, striking down New York state’s rules giving local officials broad authority to deny such permits for almost any reason.

The 6-3 decision, which divided the court along the usual ideological lines, is the latest in a series of moves by the increasingly conservative high court to adopt a muscular interpretation of the right to bear arms found in the Second Amendment to the Constitution.

The ruling Thursday expanding gun rights came as the nation is reeling from a series of high-profile mass shootings, as Congress seems poised to enact the first major gun-safety legislation in more than three decades, and as the court’s own members appear to be increasingly under physical threat.

Writing for the majority, Justice Clarence Thomas said New York’s requirement that gun owners show “proper cause” to carry a weapon outside the home for self-defense violates the Constitution’s guarantee of gun rights.

“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.”

However, the dissenting justices said the court was trampling on New York’s efforts to tailor weapons regulations to particular threats posed by guns in that state.

“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,” Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in an opinion joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, called the decision “frightful in its scope,” its language “shocking” and said the court was turning “this nation and our ability to protect our citizens back to our founding fathers.”

“I think everyone should know what happened here. As governor of the state of New York, my number one priority is to keep New Yorkers safe,” Hochul said on Thursday. “But the Supreme Court is sending us backwards in our efforts to protect families and prevent gun violence, and it’s particularly painful that this came down at this moment when we’re still dealing with families in pain from mass shootings.”

It was not entirely clear how the ruling would impact states and localities outside New York which make it difficult to obtain permits to carry guns for self-defense outside the home. Two members of the court who joined in Thursday’s decision, Justice Brett Kavanaugh and Chief Justice John Roberts, suggested it would affect only six states other than New York because they, too, put the onus on a gun owner to justify issuance of a permit.

“The Court’s decision does not prohibit States from imposing licensing requirements for carrying a handgun for self-defense,” Kavanaugh emphasized in a brief concurring opinion Roberts joined.

In his dissent, Breyer acknowledged that use of guns for hunting, target practice and self-defense is widespread and legitimate, but said states should have wide latitude to create schemes that respect those uses while mitigating the threat of weapons circulating widely.

“Balancing these lawful uses against the dangers of firearms is primarily the responsibility of elected bodies, such as legislatures,” he wrote. “It requires consideration of facts, statistics, expert opinions, predictive judgments, relevant values, and a host of other circumstances, which together make decisions about how, when, and where to regulate guns more appropriately legislative work. That consideration counsels modesty and restraint on the part of judges when they interpret and apply the Second Amendment.”

Breyer’s dissent is replete with facts and figures about mushrooming gun violence in the U.S. and includes explicit references to some of the most recent mass shootings including the massacre at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, that left 21 people dead and another at a supermarket in Buffalo, N.Y., in which 10 people were killed.

“Since the start of this year alone … there have already been 277 reported mass shootings — an average of more than one per day,” Breyer wrote.

In a solo concurrence, Justice Samuel Alito mocked much of Breyer’s recitation of the dangers of gun violence, calling it irrelevant to the issue of what rules states can impose to get a permit to carry a gun outside the home.

“Why, for example, does the dissent think it is relevant to recount the mass shootings that have occurred in recent years?,” Alito wrote. “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? The New York law at issue in this case obviously did not stop that perpetrator.”

During arguments in November, the high court’s conservative majority signaled its view that the guarantee in the Bill of Rights precludes states from insisting that individuals show “proper cause” before being licensed to carry a firearm for self-defense.

The Republican-appointed justices contended that such rules treat Second Amendment rights as inferior to other constitutional rights like freedom of speech and freedom of assembly.

Those challenging New York’s law contended that it is out of step with how other states view the Second Amendment, while defenders of the Empire State’s approach pointed to a long tradition of many states putting a variety of limits on gun possession in public.

The case decided by the Supreme Court Thursday explores an issue left unresolved by the high court in its 2008 ruling, District of Columbia v. Heller, a 5-4 decision which found a constitutional right for individuals to keep a gun in their residence but didn’t opine on rights beyond the home.

The challenge to New York’s law prompted the justices also to debate whether recognizing a right to carry a gun in public would trigger a flurry of suits over efforts to restrict the possession of weapons in particular places ranging from government buildings to universities to bars.

New York Solicitor General Barbara Underwood said at the arguments last year that permits to carry a gun for hunting or target shooting are widely available in her state, while those for self-defense are harder to come by, particularly in the more urban parts of the state. She warned that allowing anyone who worked in Manhattan late at night to carry a gun would mean flooding the city’s subways with weapons, raising what she called “the particular specter of a lot of armed people in an enclosed space.”

The Biden administration had encouraged the justices to allow New York to maintain its regulatory scheme, arguing that while free-speech and religious freedom rights have typically been seen as constant from state to state, the country has long been tolerant of widely varying gun regulations.

“The Second Amendment has a distinct history and tradition,” Deputy Solicitor General Brian Fletcher said at the arguments in November.