Supreme Court Ruling Limits Local Ability to Restrict Guns Outside the Home
The Supreme Court on Thursday struck down a New York law that placed strict limits on carrying guns outside the home, saying it was at odds with the Second Amendment.
The ruling was only the court’s second major statement on the scope of the individual constitutional right to keep and bear arms and its first on how the right applies to firearms in public places. The decision has far-reaching implications, particularly in cities that had sought to address gun crimes by putting restrictions on who can carry them.
The ruling comes after a spate of mass shootings reinvigorated the debate over gun control. The Senate is close to passing a bipartisan package of gun safety measures, a major step toward ending a yearslong stalemate in Congress.
The vote was 6 to 3, with the court’s three liberal members in dissent.
The New York law requires that people seeking a license to carry a handgun outside their homes show a “proper cause.” California, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Rhode Island have similar laws, according to briefs filed in the case.
Two men who were denied the licenses they sought in New York sued, saying that “the state makes it virtually impossible for the ordinary law-abiding citizen to obtain a license.”
The men, Robert Nash and Brandon Koch, were authorized to carry guns for target practice and hunting away from populated areas, state officials told the Supreme Court, and Mr. Koch was allowed to carry a gun to and from work.
“Nash and Koch did not receive unrestricted licenses because neither demonstrated a nonspeculative need to carry a handgun virtually anywhere in public,” Barbara D. Underwood, New York’s solicitor general, told the justices in a brief.
In 2008, in District of Columbia v. Heller, the Supreme Court recognized an individual right to keep guns in the home for self-defense. Since then, it has been almost silent on the scope of Second Amendment rights.
Indeed, the court for many years turned down countless appeals in Second Amendment cases. In the meantime, lower courts generally sustained gun control laws.
But they were divided on the question posed by the case from New York: 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.
Last year, for instance, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in San Francisco upheld Hawaii’s law by a 7-to-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.”
The court’s reluctance to hear Second Amendment cases changed as its membership shifted to the right in recent years. President Donald J. Trump’s three appointees — Justices Neil M. Gorsuch, Brett M. Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett — have all expressed support for gun rights.
And 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 wrote that he 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,” Justice Thomas wrote. “But the framers made a clear choice: They reserved to all Americans the right to bear arms for self-defense.”
In 2019, not long after Justice 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 eventually dismissed the case as moot. In a concurring opinion, Justice 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 G. Roberts Jr.’s vote.
Justice Barrett’s arrival changed that calculus. Six months after she joined the court, it agreed to hear the New York case, New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen, No. 20-843.