WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Thursday struck down a New York law that placed strict limits on carrying guns outside the home, saying it contradicts the Second Amendment.
The decision was only the court’s second major statement on the scope of the individual’s constitutional right to own and bear arms and its first on how the law applies to firearms in public places. The Second Amendment, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the majority, protects “an individual’s right to carry a handgun for self-defense outside the home.”
The decision has far-reaching implications, especially in cities that had sought to curb gun crime by placing restrictions on who is allowed to carry guns. California, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts and New Jersey have similar laws, Judge Thomas wrote.
The decision comes after a series of mass shootings reinvigorated the gun control debate. The Senate is set to pass a bipartisan package of gun safety measures, a major step toward ending a years-long deadlock in Congress.
The vote was 6 to 3, with the three liberal court members dissenting. Judge Stephen G. Breyer, writing for the dissenting justices, focused on the deadly toll of gun violence.
Thursday’s case centered on a trial of two men who were denied the licenses they sought in New York, claiming 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 cleared to carry guns for target practice and hunting away from populated areas, state officials told the Supreme Court, and Mr. Koch was cleared to carry a gun to and from work.
Justice Thomas wrote that citizens may not be required to explain to the government why they sought to exercise a constitutional right.
“We know of no other constitutional right that an individual can exercise only after demonstrating to government officials a special need,” he wrote.
“This is not how the First Amendment works when it comes to unpopular speech or the free exercise of religion,” he wrote. “That’s not how the Sixth Amendment works when it comes to a defendant’s right to confront prosecution witnesses. And that’s not how the Second Amendment works when it comes to public transportation for self-defense.
The majority opinion heralded a general standard by which courts must now judge restrictions on gun rights: “The government must demonstrate that the regulation is consistent with this country’s historic tradition of gun regulation. “
By focusing heavily on history, Judge Thomas rejected the standard used by most lower courts, one that looked at whether the law served an important government interest.
Judge Thomas acknowledged that the historical investigation the court now requires will not always be straightforward, given “the modern regulations that were unimaginable at the foundation”.
“When confronted with such current gun regulations,” he wrote, “this historic inquiry that courts must conduct will often involve reasoning by analogy – a common task for any lawyer or judge.” .
Judge Thomas wrote that states remain free to ban firearms in sensitive places, giving some examples: schools, government buildings, legislatures, polling places and courthouses. But he warned that “broadening the category of ‘sensitive places’ simply to all places of public assembly that are not isolated from law enforcement defines the category of ‘sensitive places’ far too broadly” .
“Simply put,” he added, “there is no historical basis for New York actually declaring Manhattan Island a ‘sensitive place’ simply because it is overcrowded and generally protected by the New York City Police Department.”
Dissenting, Judge Breyer said the majority’s advice was inadequate, leaving the scope of the court’s decision unclear.
“What about subways, nightclubs, cinemas and sports stadiums?” wrote Judge Breyer. “The court doesn’t say that.”
In a major concurring opinion, which seemed to limit the scope of the majority opinion, Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., wrote that certain licensing requirements remained presumptively constitutional . Among them, he wrote, were “fingerprinting, a background check, a mental health records check, and training in the handling of firearms and the laws regarding the use of force. “.
Judge Kavanaugh also cited extensively from the court’s 2008 decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, who seemed to approve of further restrictions.
“Nothing, in our view,” Judge Antonin Scalia wrote for the Heller court, “should be taken to question long-standing prohibitions on the possession of firearms by criminals and the mentally ill, or laws prohibiting the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of weapons.
Justice Breyer’s dissent, joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, gave a detailed account of the damage caused by gun violence.
“In 2020,” he writes, “45,222 Americans were killed by firearms. Since the start of this year, 277 mass shootings have been reported, an average of more than one per day. Armed violence has now overtaken road accidents as the leading cause of death among children and adolescents.
In a concurring opinion, Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. responded to the dissent.
“It is difficult to see what legitimate purpose can possibly be served by the bulk of the lengthy dissenting introductory section,” he wrote. “Why, for example, does the dissent think it relevant to report on the mass killings that have taken place in recent years? Does dissent believe that laws like New York’s prevent or deter such atrocities?
“Will a person determined to commit a mass shooting be arrested if they know it is illegal to carry a handgun outside the home?” asked Judge Alito. “And how does dissent explain 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 this author.
Judge Breyer questioned the majority’s methodology for judging the constitutionality of gun control laws in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen, No. 20-843.
“The court’s near-exclusive reliance on history is not only unnecessary, it is profoundly unworkable,” he wrote. “It imposes a task on lower courts that judges cannot easily accomplish.”
Judges, he writes, are not historians. “Legal experts generally have little experience in answering contested historical questions or applying those answers to solve contemporary problems,” he wrote, adding, “Laws dealing with repeating crossbows, launcegays, dirks, daggers, hanks, stilladers and other ancient weapons will do little to help courts facing modern problems,” he wrote.
In Heller, the Supreme Court recognized the individual right to keep firearms in the home for self-defence. Since then, he has remained almost silent on the scope of Second Amendment rights.
Indeed, for many years the court has dismissed countless appeals in Second Amendment cases. In the meantime, lower courts have generally upheld gun control laws.
The court’s reluctance to hear Second Amendment cases has changed as its members have moved to the right in recent years. The three President Donald J. Trump appointees — Justices Kavanaugh, Neil M. Gorsuch and Amy Coney Barrett — have all expressed support for gun rights.
And more conservative members of the Supreme Court have long lamented the court’s reluctance to explore the meaning and scope of the Second Amendment.
In 2017, Judge Thomas wrote that he had detected “a disturbing trend: the treatment of the Second Amendment as a disadvantaged right.”
“To those of us who work in marble halls, permanently guarded by a vigilant and dedicated police force, Second Amendment safeguards may seem antiquated and superfluous,” Judge Thomas wrote. “But the authors made a clear choice: they reserved for all Americans the right to bear arms in self-defense.”