WASHINGTON — As the nation continues to reel from two high-profile mass shootings, the Supreme Court on Thursday overturned a New York law that restricted the ability to carry handguns outside the home and declared that people have a constitutional right to carry weapons in public.
The 6-3 ruling by the court’s conservative majority sharply curtails government’s power to regulate guns and expands the Second Amendment right of an individual to bear arms for self defense in their homes that the court first established in 2008. The decision threatens existing gun restrictions in Massachusetts and at least four other states, and comes just as Congress is poised to enact modest gun safety measures — the first new restrictions in decades — following the recent shootings targeting Black grocery shoppers in Buffalo, N.Y., and elementary school students in Uvalde, Texas.
The court invalidated a New York requirement dating to 1911 that residents demonstrate “proper cause” and “a special need for self-protection” to obtain a license to carry a gun outside the home. It also calls into question the fate of “red flag” laws that allow authorities to temporarily take away weapons from a person judged to pose a threat to themselves or others that is part of bipartisan legislation advancing this week in Congress, experts said.
“We know of no other constitutional right that an individual may exercise only after demonstrating to government officers some special need,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the court’s conservative majority in Thursday’s decision.
In a concurring opinion, Justice Brett Kavanaugh and Chief Justice John Roberts said the decision does not prohibit states from requiring licenses to carry a gun outside the home as long as officials “shall issue” them if requirements are met instead of only “may issue” them under laws that grant “open-ended discretion to licensing officials.”
Kavanaugh and Roberts said states that allow officials to deny permits “with open-ended discretion” — including New York, Massachusetts, California, New Jersey, Maryland, and Hawaii — could continue to require permits for carrying guns outside the home as long as they “employ objective licensing requirements” in the future, such as background checks and firearms training.
The court’s three liberal justices opposed the decision. They pointed to the nation’s stunning death toll from gun violence, including last month’s killing of 19 children and two teachers at an elementary school in Uvalde and 10 people at a Buffalo supermarket.
“Many States have tried to address some of the dangers of gun violence ... by passing laws that limit, in various ways, who may purchase, carry, or use firearms of different kinds,” Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in a dissent joined by Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor. “The Court today severely burdens States’ efforts to do so.”
They also complained the decision makes it unclear if guns can be banned from stadiums, movie theaters, and other public places, although Thomas did make it clear that they may be banned from schools and government buildings.
Warning the decision would “place millions of New Yorkers in harm’s way,” New York Governor Kathy Hochul said she would call a special legislative session to pass a new gun law. Massachusetts’ law, which allows local police chiefs to determine whether someone should have a gun license, remains in effect, and state lawmakers said they were reviewing the decision. Governor Charlie Baker is proud of the state’s “nation-leading gun laws,” a spokesman said.
Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey said the decision puts the safety of families in the state at risk by threatening its gun laws. He called for Congress to pass the gun safety legislation and to expand the number of seats on the Supreme Court to “bring balance to an illegitimate far-right bench.”
President Biden said he was “deeply disappointed” by the decision and urged states “to continue to enact and enforce commonsense laws to make their citizens and communities safer from gun violence.”
But congressional Republicans opposed to gun restrictions, joined by the National Rifle Association and other gun rights groups, praised Thursday’s ruling.
“This decision unequivocally validates the position of the NRA and should put lawmakers on notice: No law should be passed that impinges this individual freedom,” said Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s executive vice president.
Still, shortly after the court released the decision, 15 Senate Republicans joined with all Democrats in voting to end debate on the gun safety bill. The full Senate voted 65-33 to approve the legislation on Thursday night and the House is expected to pass it as well.
The decision’s emphasis that a state must prove its law fits with the nation’s “historical tradition” of how firearms were regulated throws many more gun laws into question, and will likely lead to a bevy of lawsuits against states that have enacted reforms. Red flag laws, which the federal gun bill encourages states to adopt, could also be at risk.
“The court says in order for a gun restriction to be justified it has to be similar to historical regulations of firearms, and it’s not clear there’s ever been a history of red flag laws,” said Adam Winkler, a constitutional law expert at the UCLA. “We don’t have a long history of taking away guns from people in crisis.”
That standard would also call into question laws restricting AR-15-style rifles, high-capacity magazines, or other kinds of weapons.
“All of these things are now up for grabs with a sense that the Supreme Court is your friend if you’re challenging any sort of gun safety regulation,” said John Donohue, a law professor at Stanford University.
Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat who was part of the bipartisan group that negotiated the Senate bill, said he was “very confident that red flag laws would stand.” But he decried the decision.
“It is deeply destructive because it will unleash more violence in American communities,” he said. “It’s a step backward at a time when gun violence is soaring and we need more common-sense ... measures.”
Public support for stricter gun laws has increased in recent months, following the Buffalo and Uvalde mass shootings. Two-thirds of Americans want sales of firearms to be more strictly regulated, according to a recent Gallup poll, and a majority want new gun legislation in addition to stricter enforcement of guns laws.
The ruling’s broad finding that there’s a constitutional right to carry a weapon outside the home was among the most favorable outcomes possible for the gun lobby, which has pushed a host of state-level laws allowing people to carry weapons without a permit. In a concurring opinion, Justice Samuel Alito said the rise of deadly mass shootings was not relevant to the judges’ analysis, rebutting Breyer’s dissent, in which he noted the nearly 300 mass shootings that have happened just since January.
“The idea that a judge should not think about the consequences of the decision in light of the incredibly growing lethality of weapons and mass shootings in the US is mind boggling to me,” Donohue said.
Donohue, whose research has found looser state gun laws are correlated with more gun violence, criticized the conservative justices’ self-purported dedication to the original text of the Constitution, pointing out that they ignored the beginning of the Second Amendment, which reads, “a well regulated Militia” in order to find that everyone has a right to carry weapons in public.
“If you’re concerned about gun violence, this is a bad decision,” he said. “If you’re concerned about constitutional law, this is a terrible decision.”