WASHINGTON — The US Supreme Court announced Monday that the justices will hear a major gun rights case for the first time in more than a decade, this time exploring the rights of Americans to carry firearms in public.
Members of the court’s 6–3 conservative majority have repeatedly expressed support for more expansive interpretations of gun rights, and in recent years some have publicly called for the court to revisit the scope of the Second Amendment. The latest case involves New York state’s restrictions on when people can get a permit for the concealed carrying of firearms.
A ruling from the court could have ripple effects for other state and local governments that have tried to limit when people can leave their homes with a gun. The announcement comes on the heels of a spate of recent mass shootings across the country, and groups that advocate for stricter gun laws fear the court is poised to make it much harder for states to control who can legally carry a gun in public.
“Gun violence has only worsened during the pandemic, and a ruling that opened the door to weakening our gun laws could make it even harder for cities and states to grapple with this public health crisis,” Eric Tirschwell, managing director of Everytown Law, a legal advocacy group that has backed more stringent laws around concealed carry, said in a statement. “Fortunately, the courts have repeatedly backed states’ authority to pass public safety laws, and while the Supreme Court’s makeup has changed, the Constitution has not.”
Tom King, president of the New York State Rifle & Pistol Association, the group that brought the case against the state, said that the court's decision to hear their case "has been a long time coming." The association is represented by Paul Clement, a conservative superlawyer who served as US solicitor general under former president George W. Bush.
"We're glad that the lawful gun owners of New York state are going to have a method of addressing their grievances about being unable to carry a concealed firearm," King said.
New York Attorney General Letitia James released a statement that her office "will vigorously defend any challenge to New York state’s gun laws that are intended to protect public safety. We look forward to presenting the state’s arguments at the U.S. Supreme Court and to showing how New York’s laws protect public safety in a manner consistent with the Second Amendment.”
The last time the Supreme Court issued major rulings on gun rights, they were focused on the right of Americans to have guns in their homes for self-defense. In 2008, the court struck down Washington, DC’s handgun ban as unconstitutional in District of Columbia v. Heller, and then applied the same reasoning two years later in McDonald v. City of Chicago to state and local governments that had tried to enforce similar bans.
The New York licensing rules now at issue require residents who want a permit to carry a gun in public to show they have some “proper cause” to do so — that is, a specific need for self-defense that isn’t just speculation; residents can also get a more restricted license for specific purposes, such as hunting or employment.
Other state and local governments have adopted similar rules in the decade since the McDonald decision, and for the most part, they’ve been upheld as challenges wound their way through the federal courts. These decisions haven’t been unanimous, however — the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit blocked DC’s version of a “good reason” licensing rule in 2017; New York’s lawyers have argued that its rules aren’t as stringent as the District’s.
Meanwhile, the ideological balance of the Supreme Court has dramatically changed since 2010. The confirmation of Justices Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett under former president Donald Trump deepened the court’s conservative wing. Last spring, when the court declined to hear another gun rights case out of New York involving when people could transport firearms outside of their homes, Kavanaugh wrote a one-page concurring opinion saying it was time for the court to revisit the scope of the Second Amendment and how lower courts were analyzing these cases.
“I share Justice Alito’s concern that some federal and state courts may not be properly applying Heller and McDonald,” Kavanaugh wrote. “The Court should address that issue soon, perhaps in one of the several Second Amendment cases with petitions for certiorari now pending before the Court.”
Barrett wasn’t on the court at the time, but as a judge on the 7th Circuit, she expressed her own support for a more expansive reading of the Second Amendment. In March 2019, she was on a three-judge panel that rejected a challenge to federal and Wisconsin laws that banned people convicted of most felony crimes from owning or possessing a firearm. Barrett dissented, writing that these types of laws should only ban possession if the person seeking permission presented a public safety risk. A blanket ban treated the Second Amendment as a “second-class right,” Barrett wrote.
The court will hear the New York case during its next term, which begins in the fall.
Updated with comment from New York Attorney General Letitia James and Tom King.