One of the State of New York’s handgun permitting requirements was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of the United States on June 23.
SCOTUS overturned the previous decision of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in its ruling on New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen – a case that goes back to the Sullivan Act of 1911, which made the possession of a handgun without a permit a crime in New York City.
The law in question required an applicant to “demonstrate a special need for self-protection distinguishable from that of the general community or of persons engaged in the same profession.”
Robert Nash, Brandon Koch and NYSRPA challenged the law after Nash was denied a permit when he claimed that he needed the weapon due to the high number of recent robberies in his neighborhood.
The case was originally dismissed by lower courts, but the plaintiffs filed an appeal, citing the Second Amendment, with SCOTUS hearing oral arguments on Nov. 3, 2021.
This is the first major gun-related case to come before SCOTUS in over a decade.
Justice Clarence Thomas delivered the majority opinion of the court and was supported by Justices John Roberts, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett.
Justice Stephen Breyer filed a dissenting opinion, which Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan joined.
Coming in the wake of a string of mass shootings, the ruling is likely to garner significant headlines and raise the ire of many. However, the majority ruling is more measured and less groundbreaking than many, including myself, expected.
Prior to the NYSRPA case, SCOTUS ruled on two Second Amendment cases in the 21st century.
In District of Columbia v Heller (2008), the court confirmed an individual’s right to possess firearms, including handguns, within their home for protection. The majority ruled that a state still reserves the right to regulate the sale and transfer of weapons while defining where one can legally be carried.
In McDonald v. City of Chicago (2010), justices confirmed that the Second Amendment applies at the state as well as federal level. This second ruling caused many to question the limit of the state’s power to restrict firearm ownership and usage.
In NYSRPA, the court focused on New York’s requirement that an individual must show special need or justification to carry a firearm, deciding that a state cannot require an individual to justify why they need to carry a weapon.
Thomas explains, “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 Right’s guarantees. … The Exercise of other constitutional rights does not require individuals to demonstrate to government officers some special need. The Second Amendment right to carry arms in public for self-defense is no different.”
In addition, the decision eliminated any ambiguity that existed in the earlier rulings as to whether an individual is restricted to only carrying a firearm in one’s home. The majority stated that the Second Amendment makes no distinction between the home and public spheres.
The NYSPRA ruling, while not as expansive as many thought it might be, is the result of decades of effort to expand the right to carry firearms.
“Constitutional carry” advocates have argued for years that an individual has a constitutional right to carry a handgun or other firearm on their person without a government-issued permit.
This is the culmination of 30 years of work by the National Rifle Association, which began in 1987 with the passage of conceal and carry legislation in Florida.
The movement has picked up steam in recent years, with 19 states affirming constitutional carry since 2019.
Today, 42 states have acknowledged that their citizens have a right to carry a firearm in public, with 17 of these requiring a government-issued permit.
While these states recognize a general right to carry a weapon, they do restrict places where a gun can be carried. Carrying restrictions usually apply to schools, churches, federal or capital buildings, banks and bars.
Often, a permit or enhanced permit is required, and SCOTUS did not challenge this long-standing limitation in NYSRPA.
However, it is unclear what impact this ruling might have on states like California, Hawaii, New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Connecticut, which have the most restrictive gun laws in the nation and the lowest rate of death by firearm.
Regulations in these states range from limits on the size of ammunition magazines and on the locations where a weapon can be openly carried or concealed to requirements for extensive background checks and registration.
Some places allow open carry of a weapon, but the gun must be unloaded. Other states have automobile storage requirements. The NRA maintains a list of state firearms laws.
NYSRPA does not establish constitutional carry in every state, but it will prohibit states from requiring citizens to justify the need to carry a weapon. This will make it easier for people to carry handguns and other firearms outside of their homes.
The point here is that state laws vary widely, and the public has mixed feelings about the nation’s current laws regulating firearm ownership and usage.
A Pew Research Center report published in April 2021 found that a slim majority (53%) of U.S. adults favor stricter gun laws, while 32% said current laws are “about right” and 14% want less strict regulations.
Nearly half (49%) of respondents felt that more strict laws would lead to fewer mass shootings, while 42% said it wouldn’t make a difference and 9% that it would result in more mass shootings.
In general, there is support for specific forms of gun regulation, with a majority of adults somewhat / strongly favoring the following provisions:
- Preventing people with mental illnesses from purchasing guns: 87%
- Making private gun sales and sales at gun shows subject to background checks: 81%
- Creating a federal government database to track all gun sales: 66%
- Banning high-capacity ammunition magazines that hold more than 10 rounds: 64%
- Banning assault-style weapons: 63%
And a majority somewhat / strongly oppose the following proposals:
- Allowing people to carry concealed guns in more places: 56%
- Allowing teachers and school officials to carry guns in K-12 schools: 57%
- Shortening waiting periods for people who want to buy guns legally: 64%
- Allowing people to carry concealed guns without a permit: 79%
The full impact of NYSRPA on gun regulation is still to be seen, and how states respond will chart a course for the future in terms of firearm regulations.
NYSRPA was not earth shattering, and it will not radically change the nations gun laws.
What the ruling will mean for the plague of gun violence in the U.S. remains to be seen, but it communicates that certain firearm restrictions will be difficult for states to implement and enforce.
Senior Staff Chaplain and Clinical Ethicist at the Baptist Health Medical Center in Little Rock, Arkansas.