Amid unrelenting mass shootings, the Supreme Court on Thursday struck down a New York State law that made it difficult to obtain a permit to carry a handgun outside the home, marking the justices’ first major opinion on Second Amendment rights in more than a decade.
The 6-3 decision to invalidate New York’s law throws into question the legality of similar restrictions in more than a half dozen other states that give licensing officials wide discretion over concealed carry permitting.
The ruling broke along ideological lines, with the court’s six conservatives joining a majority opinion written by Justice Clarence Thomas.
The New York law at issue required concealed carry permit applicants to demonstrate a special need for a license, beyond a basic desire for self-defense. In striking down the law, the court’s conservatives ruled that the so-called “proper-cause requirement” prevented “law-abiding citizens with ordinary self-defense needs from exercising their right to keep and bear arms.”
“We know of no other constitutional right that an individual may exercise only after demonstrating to government officers some special need,” Thomas wrote for the majority. “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.”
The court’s three liberals, in dissent, accused the conservative majority of failing to consider “the potentially deadly consequences of its decision.”
The ruling comes after recent mass shootings reignited a wrenching debate over how to balance a constitutional right to bear arms with Americans’ concerns for personal safety in a country with more than 390 million privately owned firearms.
The opinion builds on the court’s last major gun rights decision more than a decade ago. In its 2008 decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, a 5-4 court ruled that the Constitution protects an individual’s right to keep a gun in the home for self-defense. The court in Heller noted that the Second Amendment is “not unlimited,” but left unanswered what restrictions are constitutionally allowed.
The dispute arose after two New York residents were denied unrestricted carry licenses. Backed by an affiliate of the National Rifle Association, the applicants sued the licensing officials and, after losing in the lower courts, filed their ultimately successful appeal to the Supreme Court.