Supreme Court weighs public safety in New York gun rights case

The high court’s decision is likely to be a major ruling on gun rights, potentially hinging on the  justices’ understanding of the history of gun regulations in the U.S. 

By Vanessa Montalbano

The Supreme Court appeared divided Wednesday over whether a New York law is constitutional that requires people to show a special need for a license to carry a concealed handgun in public. Under this law, a general desire for self-protection is deemed an insufficient cause to carry the weapon without restriction. 

The trio of justices appointed by former President Donald Trump — Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett — seemed to rely on their conservative beliefs by using the text of the Constitution as a foundation in their questioning. 

“How do we think about too much discretion, in exercise of authority, over constitutional rights,” Justice Kavanaugh asked Deputy Solicitor General Brian Fletcher, representing New York.

Kavanaugh expressed worry that the New York law, which allows licensing officers to make gun permitting decisions, gives too much discretion to government officials to determine which residents qualify for a license to carry a gun in public places.

“Well, that’s the real concern, isn’t it, with any constitutional right,” he said.  “If it’s the discretion of an individual officer, that seems inconsistent.”  

New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. Bruen is the first Second Amendment case to be heard by the court in over a decade. The case will determine whether people have a constitutional right to carry loaded concealed weapons outside the home and in public spaces — virtually wherever and whenever they believe they might need a firearm for self-defense — including places of worship, playgrounds, nightclubs, grocery stores, or their own workplaces. 

Only seven other states — California, Delaware, Rhode Island, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, and New Jersey — have similar regulations to New York’s, according to The Washington Post.

Alex Barrio, advocacy director on the gun violence prevention team at the Center for American Progress, a public policy research organization, said in an interview that the idea that people “should just be allowed to carry loaded weapons of death everywhere they go” is “patently absurd.”

The New York State Rifle and Pistol Association, an affiliate of the National Rifle Association, and two individual petitioners, challenged New York’s law as being an unreasonable restriction and a violation of the Second Amendment.

“Why isn’t it good enough to say I live in a violent area and want to protect myself,” Kavanaugh said, questioning the limits imposed by the New York law. 

Kavanaugh’s is a “very, very scary argument,” Barrio said. “It really strikes at the heart of gun violence prevention legislation, which seeks to keep guns, not just out of the hands of dangerous peoples, but out of the hands of sensitive places.”

The two petitioners, Robert Nash and Brandon Koch, passed all of the required background checks in New York and obtained licenses to carry guns for hunting and target practice. But, neither has been able to establish a special need for self-protection that is required to receive an unrestricted license in the state, which would allow them to carry their guns in any public place. 

Justice Sonia Sotomayor referenced a long history of the states curbing the right to carry concealed guns in public places during her questioning.

“I don’t know how I get past all that history without you sort of making it up,” Sotomayor told Paul Clement, the plaintiffs’ attorney.

She said the court should look toward state lawmakers to determine the limits for carrying firearms outside the home, as has been the case for hundreds of years.

New York Solicitor General Barbara D. Underwood agreed, saying the New York law “fits well within that tradition of regulating public carry.” 

If the court rules against the law, Barrio said, gun violence that is already common will be exacerbated. “It’s going to create more and more opportunities to add a firearm into a volatile situation,” he said. 

Gun violence is already becoming more common in the country, Barrio said. He estimates that at least 100 to 120 people die everyday from gun violence. “It’s just scary.”

The Center for American Progress, where Barrio works, said a surge in legal gun sales this year and last year has also led to a surge in murders. It reports an additional 5,000 murders in 2020 than 2019, while hundreds of thousands more guns were purchased during the pandemic. 

“We have to be strengthening our gun laws,” Barrio said. “Not destroying them or undermining them.” 

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