The Supreme Court on Thursday eased restrictions on carrying firearms in public, continuing a trend by the court in recent years of weakening gun restrictions.
The court’s conservative majority ruled 6-3 that New York could not prohibit gun owners from carrying their handgun outside their home based on the state’s determination that the citizen lacked sufficient cause to fear for their own safety.
The case of New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen was based in a lawsuit brought by two New York men who challenged a state law that requires them to have a “proper cause,” or special need, in order to carry a firearm outside their home. The ruling will have a ripple effect for other states with similar restrictions, such as California, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Jersey.
In Thursday’s ruling, which was written by conservative Justice Clarence Thomas, the court found that New York’s proper cause requirement was unconstitutional. The court’s three liberal justices dissented.
The ruling comes just weeks after one of the worst mass shootings in U.S. history, in which 19 children and two teachers were slaughtered by a young man carrying a high-powered rifle in Uvalde, Texas.
The decision was expected since last fall’s arguments, when it became clear that all six conservative justices were skeptical of the state’s authority to determine who has a “proper cause” and who does not.
“We know of no other constitutional right that an individual may exercise only after demonstrating to government officers some special need,” Thomas wrote in Thursday’s decision.
The Second Amendment to the Constitution states: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” The plaintiffs in the New York case argued that the state law restricts their right to “bear arms.”
But supporters of the law have said that public safety, especially in densely populated urban areas, is also a mandate of the state government. They argue that states — rather than the Supreme Court — are better equipped to craft policies that balance gun rights with public safety concerns.
What was unknown was how much the court would allow states to restrict guns in public places through other policies and laws, such as designating certain “sensitive places” as off-limits for firearms. The decision upheld the right of states to continue limiting or prohibiting firearms in such locations, but placed some limits on how broadly that term can be defined.
“It is true that people sometimes congregate in ‘sensitive places,’ and it is likewise true that law enforcement professionals are usually presumptively available in those locations. But expanding the category of ‘sensitive places’ simply to all places of public congregation that are not isolated from law enforcement defines the category of ‘sensitive places’ far too broadly,” Thomas wrote.
Conversely, Justice Brett Kavanaugh, one of the six conservatives, wrote a concurring opinion, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts, that sought to put some limits around the majority ruling. “Like most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited,” Kavanaugh wrote, quoting former Justice Antonin Scalia, also a conservative, in a previous gun case, District of Columbia vs. Heller.
Kavanaugh said the court’s decision does not nullify or render void licensing requirements currently in place in most states that “may require a license applicant to undergo fingerprinting, a background check, a mental health records check, and training in firearms handling and in laws regarding the use of force, among other possible requirements.”
Kavanaugh also quoted from Scalia’s list of possible restrictions on firearms possession.
“Nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms,” Kavanaugh quoted Scalia as writing. He included Scalia’s affirmation of regulations and restrictions on “dangerous and unusual weapons” that are not in “common use.”
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul responded immediately to the court’s ruling and focused on what her state will do within the scope of the new ruling. She outlined an approach that will specify how the state defines sensitive places and introduce a more robust permitting process, training requirements and rules for private property owners to designate their own limitations.
During arguments, lawyers for New York had argued that the court should allow each state to make its own laws on the matter.
“The Anglo-American legal tradition has for centuries included limits on the public carrying of weapons, a tradition imported immediately into the colonies, and which existed to protect the public from harm,” wrote Jeremy Feigenbaum, the state solicitor of New Jersey, last year.
“The simple truth is that what works in a rural region in Alaska may not work in an urban center in New York or New Jersey, and state legislatures are far better situated to sift through local safety evidence and hear from local law enforcement than a single national court,” Feigenbaum argued.
But the lead attorney for the plaintiffs contended last fall that the court should shift the state’s power away from restricting the ability to carry firearms outside the home and toward limiting the exercise of that right in certain spaces such as schools, government buildings, sports arenas and major public events.
“It is the difference between regulating constitutionally protected activity and attempting to convert a fundamental constitutional right into a privilege that can only be enjoyed by those who can demonstrate to the satisfaction of a government official that they have an atypical need for the exercise of that right,” the plaintiffs' attorney, Paul Clement, told the justices.
The court’s majority agreed with Clement.