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What the latest Supreme Court ruling on guns does and doesn’t do

Prepared for protests. The US Supreme Court in Washington, DC.Jose Luis Magana/Associated Press

A US Supreme Court decision that ruled a key gun restriction law in six states was unconstitutional has been called “shocking” and described as “severely undermining public safety” by one side, and heralded as a “watershed win for good men and women all across America” by the other.

To be sure, it was a big moment. This is the second major gun ruling from the Supreme Court in 14 years. For a long time, the highest court in the land just didn’t take up the matter.

In the immediate aftermath of the ruling, there is some confusion about what it means and what it doesn’t. Here is a quick guide:


What it doesn’t mean: Gun laws have been fundamentally altered

Thursday’s ruling didn’t dramatically alter gun laws around the country or the Second Amendment itself. The ruling that did that was a Supreme Court decision in 2008 called District of Columbia v. Heller.

In that decision, justices ruled that the right to bear arms granted in the Second Amendment didn’t just apply to “well regulated militias.” For the first time, the court said that individuals, too, had the right to own a gun, in their own homes, for self-defense. The decision Thursday extends this individual right from the home to the public square.

What it means: More guns will be seen on the streets, including in Massachusetts.

The New York law that was challenged in the Supreme Court said that those wishing to carry a gun outside their home would need to obtain a permit from the government, and the would-be gun owner was required to state the reason for getting the permit. The pair of New York residents that sued the government and won in the high court were given hunting permits, but not granted a permit to carry their firearms in public. A total of six states, including Massachusetts, have similar laws.


This restriction has allowed law enforcement to immediately ask questions when they see a person with a gun on a city street and, in many cases, confiscate the gun if a person does not have the proper permit.

Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the 6-3 majority that while it may make sense for there to be gun-carrying restrictions in “sensitive” places, it was unconstitutional for the government to issue a blanket restriction on carrying a gun outside one’s home.

Without a permitting process, there will likely be more guns on the streets and visible in public. Some government leaders warn that this could lead to more gun violence.

What it doesn’t mean: That all gun laws are unconstitutional

While gun control advocates rightly see this decision as a setback, it doesn’t mean that other laws addressing gun violence are also unconstitutional. Ironically, at the moment that the court was handing down this decision, the US Senate was set to pass the first piece of gun control legislation in nearly 30 years.

That bill includes measure like creating an extended waiting period for people ages 18-21 years old who buy certain types of weapons. It would also allow the government to temporarily take guns away from individuals deemed to be about to hurt themselves or others.

The high court’s ruling does nothing to prevent those restrictions from going forward. Nor would it impact any future laws banning certain weapons, like AR-15s.


What it means: More rulings relaxing gun laws could be coming

The mere fact that the court appears willing to wade into the area of gun laws could mean that more rulings are on the way. This is especially true as a number of states race to pass gun control laws in the wake of an epidemic of mass shootings around the country.

What it doesn’t mean: More people will be gun owners

Only about a third of Americans own a gun. Those who do tend to own more than one. In 2015, a government study found that, on average, a gun owner in America owns eight guns.

The decision on Thursday likely won’t change this dynamic much. While it will call into question laws in Massachusetts that some consider the most restrictive in the country on who can buy a gun, it doesn’t necessarily mean that more people will decide to buy one.

This is especially the case in states with less-restrictive laws. Thursday’s ruling just means that if a person has a gun, they can carry it in more places.

What it does mean: There will be a new gun control debate over what a ‘sensitive’ area is

As noted above, Thomas wrote in the court’s opinion that restricting guns in certain “sensitive areas” made sense. What he didn’t do is define what “sensitive areas” are. This will be a new front on the gun debate in America. For example, is a public school a sensitive area? City Hall? What about a public park?


New York Governor Kathy Hochul announced in the wake of the ruling that she wants the state legislature to quickly define what the sensitive areas are in her state. Expect to see a lot of debate in the days ahead about that particular phrase around the country.

James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell and on Instagram @jameswpindell.