WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court said Monday that it would review a long-standing New York law that imposes strict limits on carrying guns outside the home, setting the stage for its first major Second Amendment decision in more than a decade — and the first to be decided by the court’s newly expanded conservative majority.
The move came after a recent spate of mass shootings, which were followed by calls from President Joe Biden and other Democrats for stricter restrictions on firearms. Scholars who study gun rights said a ruling striking down the New York law could undermine those efforts and have broad national implications.
“The ruling will profoundly impact the number of guns legally carried on the streets of New York, Los Angeles and Boston,” said Adam Winkler, a law professor at UCLA and the author of “Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America.”
“In these cities, only a handful of residents have permits to carry firearms,” he said.
The Supreme Court has turned down countless Second Amendment appeals since it established an individual right to keep guns in the home for self-defense in 2008 in District of Columbia v. Heller.
Since then, lower courts have generally sustained gun control laws. But they are divided on the fundamental question posed by the new case: whether states can stop law-abiding citizens from carrying guns outside their homes for self-defense unless they can satisfy the authorities that they have a good reason for doing so.
Winkler said the court’s willingness to hear the new case was part of former President Donald Trump’s legacy. “Trump’s three appointments to the Supreme Court,” he said, “have created a likely strong majority in favor of curtailing America’s gun laws.”
The Supreme Court now has a six-justice conservative majority, and Trump’s three appointees — Justices Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett — have all expressed support for gun rights.
The new case is a challenge to a New York law that requires people seeking a license to carry a gun outside their homes to show a “proper cause.” Two men denied licenses, along with the New York State Rifle & Pistol Association, sued, saying “the state makes it virtually impossible for the ordinary law-abiding citizen to obtain a license.”
California, Delaware, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Rhode Island have similar laws, according to gun rights groups.
The precise question the Supreme Court agreed to answer was “whether the state’s denial of petitioners’ applications for concealed-carry licenses for self-defense violated the Second Amendment.”
Jason Ouimet, the executive director of the National Rifle Association’s Institute for Legislative Action, said in a statement that the justices had “decided to hear one of the most critical Second Amendment issues.”
“We’re confident that the court will tell New York and the other states,” he said, “that our Second Amendment right to defend ourselves is fundamental and doesn’t vanish when we leave our homes.”(BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM.)Michael Waldman, the author of “The Second Amendment: A Biography,” said the decision to take the case was “a big move” by the justices who tend to favor gun rights.
“The New York law is over a century old,” Waldman said. “It has been the basis for gun laws in cities across the country. Among other things, if the justices really are going to be guided by history and tradition, this law should stand.”
(END OPTIONAL TRIM.)Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, vowed that the state would fight the case, New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Corlett, No. 20-843, which he noted had been pressed by a group affiliated with the NRA.
“The streets of New York are not the OK Corral,” he said in a statement, “and the NRA’s dream of a society where everyone is terrified of each other and armed to the teeth is abhorrent to our values.”
Even as the Supreme Court seems poised to broaden gun rights, Biden has been taking modest steps to address gun violence while calling on Congress to do more. He announced this month, for instance, that he was cracking down on ghost guns, or firearms assembled from kits.
Biden said he wanted the Justice Department to issue a regulation within a month to require that the components in the kits have serial numbers that would allow them to be traced and that the weapons be legally classified as firearms, with the buyers subjected to background checks.
The final regulation is expected in the coming weeks, and gun control advocates are waiting to see how aggressive the wording will be.
Biden also recently nominated David Chipman, a supporter of tighter gun rules, to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which has not had a permanent director since 2015.
Biden said his executive actions were merely first steps, and in the face of criticism from proponents of tighter gun control that he is not doing enough, he called on Congress to pass an assault weapons ban and to close background check loopholes.
The House passed two gun control bills last month, but they are languishing in the Senate in the face of the chamber’s 60-vote threshold for passing most legislation, which requires the support of at least 10 Republicans.
In the lower courts, supporters of measures to address gun violence have met with considerable success. Federal appeals courts have, for instance, generally rejected challenges to restrictions like the one in New York. In March, for instance, an 11-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, in San Francisco, upheld Hawaii’s law by a 7-4 vote.
“Our review of more than 700 years of English and American legal history reveals a strong theme: Government has the power to regulate arms in the public square,” Judge Jay S. Bybee, who was appointed by President George W. Bush, wrote for the majority.
The federal appeals court in Chicago, on the other hand, struck down an Illinois law that banned carrying guns in public. And a federal appeals court in Washington struck down a restrictive District of Columbia law that it said amounted to “a total ban on most D.C. residents’ right to carry a gun.”
In urging the Supreme Court not to hear the case from New York, Barbara D. Underwood, the state’s solicitor general, said its law required people seeking licenses to give an “actual and articulable” reason for needing to carry a gun, distinguishing it from the more restrictive Illinois and District of Columbia laws.
The Supreme Court’s most conservative members have long deplored the court’s reluctance to explore the meaning and scope of the Second Amendment.
In 2017, Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by Gorsuch, wrote that they had detected “a distressing trend: the treatment of the Second Amendment as a disfavored right.”
“For those of us who work in marbled halls, guarded constantly by a vigilant and dedicated police force, the guarantees of the Second Amendment might seem antiquated and superfluous,” Thomas wrote. “But the framers made a clear choice: They reserved to all Americans the right to bear arms for self-defense.”(STORY CAN END HERE. OPTIONAL MATERIAL FOLLOWS.)In 2019, not long after Kavanaugh’s arrival, the court agreed to hear a challenge to a New York City gun regulation that had allowed residents to keep guns in their homes to take them to one of seven shooting ranges in the city. But it prohibited them from taking their guns to second homes and shooting ranges outside the city, even when the guns were unloaded and locked in containers separate from ammunition.
After the court granted review, the city repealed the regulation and the court last April dismissed the case as moot. In a concurring opinion, Kavanaugh wrote that he was concerned that lower courts were not sufficiently sensitive to Second Amendment rights. “The court should address that issue soon,” he wrote.
In June, however, the court turned down some 10 appeals in Second Amendment cases. Since it takes only four votes to grant review, there is good reason to think that the court’s conservative wing, which at the time had five members, was unsure it could secure Chief Justice John Roberts Jr.’s vote.
Barrett’s arrival in October changed that calculus.