The conservative majority on the Supreme Court is potentially poised to take down one of the nation’s oldest and most restrictive gun-control laws this summer. New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen will be the court’s first major Second Amendment case in more than a decade, and happens to be coming amid rising national gun violence and an uptick in gun sales in recent years. What the justices decide could unravel laws across the nation restricting who can carry guns in public.
Here’s what’s happening.
The case: Can New York place severe restrictions on who can carry a gun in public?
For 108 years, New York has said that anyone who wants to carry a gun in public must apply for a license, and he or she must be at least 21, have no criminal record, have “good moral character” and — this is the part really being challenged — a demonstrated need to carry the gun beyond average public safety fears. This is known as “proper cause.”
Two men from upstate New York challenged the state’s law when they applied to carry a gun at all times but only received allowances for hunting, or to and from work. They sued, arguing the strict law violated their Second Amendment rights to “keep and bear arms.”
Even though the law has been on the books for so long, it’s at risk of being knocked down now by a newly cemented conservative Supreme Court majority. And depending on how widely the justices rule, they could knock down other state laws like it.
What supporters of New York’s law say about its constitutionality:
Mostly liberal states like California, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Jersey have similar public carry restrictions, and so do several big cities.
Supporters of these laws argue that they’re necessary in high-density areas, and that the Constitution allows states to govern themselves. “A road-rage incident on the New Jersey Turnpike can quickly become violent,” writes New Jersey state solicitor Jeremy Feigenbaum in Scotusblog. “A fight in Times Square can turn lethal.”
Supporters also argue that such restrictions have been around for centuries, underscoring the value society has placed on public safety over gun rights in public places. “It’s not a thing we just came up with yesterday,” said Esther Sanchez-Gomez, a senior attorney with Giffords, an organization that supports gun-control legislation. “So it’s shocking that we are now talking about the idea that people somehow might be safer if our public spaces were filled with guns.”
The Biden administration weighed in too. The Department of Justice wrote in a brief for the court that “the Second Amendment protects an individual right to keep and bear arms, but that right is not absolute.”
What opponents of New York’s law say:
Critics say requiring people to justify why they need to carry a gun in public puts a burden specifically on the Second Amendment’s right to “bear” arms. Challengers to the law told the Supreme Court that a person should not have to show a “special need” to exercise a constitutional right.
Under questioning from conservative Supreme Court justices, New York officials acknowledged that a doorman or nurse working late-night hours and commuting home in a high-crime neighborhood cannot receive permission to carry a gun for those reasons alone.
“Why,” asked Justice Brett Kavanaugh, “isn’t it good enough to say I live in a violent area and I want to be able to defend myself?”
This case has mixed up traditional political lines on guns. Several Republican lawyers filed a brief supporting laws like New York’s, arguing that specifically in Washington, D.C., public carry restrictions “may well have prevented a massacre” at the Capitol on Jan. 6.
A group of public defenders in New York City argue that the law disproportionately affects the constitutional rights of Black and Latino New Yorkers. They also said many of their clients arrested for having unlicensed firearms in New York City said carrying them made them feel safer after they, or their friends and families, experienced attacks in the city.
How this case could impact gun laws across the nation:
The Supreme Court hasn’t weighed in recently on whether the Second Amendment protects carrying guns outside the home. In 2008’s District of Columbia v. Heller, the court said the Second Amendment protects the right to own a gun for self-defense in the home, and in McDonald v. Chicago in 2010, made clear that state and local gun control measures (and not just federal ones) also must respect that right.
If they rule that New York’s restrictions on carrying a gun in public are unconstitutional, then “across the country, there will be lots of laws that will be invalidated right away,” said Jerold Levine, a New York City lawyer who focuses on gun cases and supports the challenge to this law.
He said it’s likely the court will still allow states and municipalities to deny people licenses to carry guns — “there’s no need to worry that murderers will be getting licenses,” he said — but people won’t have to provide a justification for their application.
Levine called this potential change the “holy grail” of gun rights: “This has been the greatest limitation for gun owners now for over 100 years.”
Sanchez-Gomez said the worst-case scenario for gun-control supporters is in play in this case: It’s possible that the court decides there is a fundamental right to carry guns in public spaces and that there isn’t much governments can do to restrict that.
“As a nation we have a collective trauma about gun violence,” she said. ” … You worry you go to a grocery store and someone might show up with a gun. You worry you are waiting to take a subway to work in the morning and someone is going to show up with a gun.”
New York City officials fear that the Supreme Court could force the state to allow more people to carry more guns in public places. Gun violence there has doubled in recent years, from their historic lows in the years before the pandemic. “In a densely populated community like New York, this ruling could have a major impact on us,” New York City Mayor Eric Adams, D, a former police captain, said.
There could be a compromise, or a narrow ruling:
During oral arguments in this case last fall, conservative justices seemed particularly interested in how New York City could prohibit guns in what the Supreme Court has called “sensitive places” — such as schools, stadiums or Times Square.
Or the justices could rule that the law was unconstitutional only as applied in this specific instance, rather than make a sweeping statement about the right to carry a gun in public. But few expect such a narrow ruling. “More likely,” said Sanchez-Gomez, “I expect that the ruling will have broader implications.”