The Supreme Court on Thursday struck down a New York law that placed strict restrictions on carrying concealed firearms in public for self-defense, finding its requirement that applicants seeking a concealed carry license demonstrate a special need for self-defense is unconstitutional.
In a 6-3 ruling, the Supreme Court reversed a lower court decision upholding New York’s 108-year-old law limiting who can obtain a license to carry a concealed handgun in public. Proponents of the measure warned that a ruling from the high court invalidating it could threaten gun restrictions in several states and lead to more firearms on city streets.
Justice Clarence Thomas delivered the majority opinion for the ideologically divided court, writing that New York’s “proper-cause requirement” prevented law-abiding citizens from exercising their Second Amendment right, and its licensing regime is unconstitutional.
“The constitutional right to bear arms in public for self-defense is not ‘a second-class right, subject to an entirely different body of rules than the other Bill of Rights guarantees,'” Thomas wrote. “We know of no other constitutional right that an individual may exercise only after demonstrating to government officers some special need. That is not how the First Amendment works when it comes to unpopular speech or the free exercise of religion. It is not how the Sixth Amendment works when it comes to a defendant’s right to confront the witnesses against him. And it is not how the Second Amendment works when it comes to public carry for self-defense.”
Writing in dissent for the liberal wing of the court, Justice Stephen Breyer noted the rise in gun violence in the U.S. and the ubiquity of firearms, and warned that states working to pass more stringent firearms laws will be “severely” burdened by the court’s decision.
“In my view, when courts interpret the Second Amendment, it is constitutionally proper, indeed often necessary, for them to consider the serious dangers and consequences of gun violence that lead states to regulate firearms,” Breyer wrote. “The Second Circuit has done so and has held that New York’s law does not violate the Second Amendment. I would affirm that holding.”
The court’s decision comes on the heels of a string of mass shootings from mid-May to early June that jolted the nation and acted as a catalyst for Congress to again search for consensus on a legislative plan to curb gun violence. On May 14, a racist gunman went on a shooting rampage at a grocery store in Buffalo, N.Y., killing 10 people. Ten days later, 19 children and two teachers were massacred in a shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. Then, on June 1, four people were fatally shot at a medical building in Tulsa, Okla.
The ruling marks the first expansion of gun rights since 2008, when the Supreme Court recognized that the Second Amendment protects the right to keep firearms in the home for self-defense. The New York court battle was also the biggest Second Amendment case before the court since its 2008 decision, and a 2010 ruling that said the right to have a handgun in the home applies to the states. Gun rights supporters were hopeful the Supreme Court’s 6-3 conservative majority would recognize the Second Amendment protects the right to carry a firearm in public.
In a concurring opinion by Justice Brett Kavanaugh and joined by Chief Justice John Roberts, Kavanuagh noted the court’s decision does not prohibit states from imposing licensing requirements for carrying handguns, and leaves untouched existing regimes in 43 states. Instead, it only impacts more stringent licensing rules in effect in six states, including New York.
The New York permitting law at the crux of the dispute dates back to 1913 and requires residents seeking a license to carry a gun outside the home to demonstrate a “proper cause” to obtain one, which state courts have said is a “special need for self-protection.”
The two plaintiffs in the case, Robert Nash and Brandon Koch, each applied for carry licenses, but licensing officers denied their applications because they failed to establish proper cause to carry handguns in public. The two were granted “restricted” licenses to carry firearms for target shooting, hunting and outdoor activities.
Along with the New York State Rifle and Pistol Association, Nash and Koch challenged the constitutionality of New York’s prohibition on carrying handguns in public and the proper-cause requirement in 2018. A federal district court dismissed their suit, and the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the decision, leaving the licensing regime in place.
Half of the states generally require a permit issued by the state in order to carry a concealed firearm in public, and of those, about six other states — California, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Rhode Island — allow a person to carry a firearm in public only if he has a need to do so.
New York officials and the Biden administration, which urged the Supreme Court to uphold the law, warned the justices during oral arguments in November that invalidating the measure could have a domino effect, jeopardizing not only the states’ restrictions but also others that limit public carry in places where people congregate, such as airports, arenas, churches and schools.
Some of the justices appeared concerned about how a broad ruling could impact restrictions imposed on places where large amounts of people gather. Roberts, for example, questioned whether a state or city could ban firearms at football stadiums or places where alcohol is served, while Justice Amy Coney Barrett asked about banning guns in “sensitive places,” such as Times Square on New Year’s Eve.